A Refusenik Returns

Israeli politics frame David Bezmozgis’ bitterly funny tale of Jewish Crimea

Not since the Limelighters, early 1960s folkies, has Simferopol made its way to the centre of art that is wild and smart. Of that old central Crimean city, where Jews set up farming colonies in the 1920s, the Limelighters sang out in proudly stentorian Yiddish: “Az men fort kine Sevastopol, Iz nit veit fun Simferopol, dortn iz a stantziye a faran” (When you to go to Sevastopol, not so far from Simferopol, there is a station not so far away).

In David Bezmozgis’s second novel, The Betrayers, Simferopol is a station on the way to Yalta, the Russian coastal getaway where much of the novel’s action takes place. But a wonderful scene is set in Simferopol, where the book’s key figure, a major Israeli political figure, is recognized:

—But are you?

—I am, Kotler confirmed.

Redstu Yiddish? the man inquired.

—A bissel, Kotler replied, to the man’s great delight.

—Ah, zeyer gut! Vos macht a yid?

—A yid dreitzikh, Kotler said. A Jew gets by, his father’s favored phrase.

—Come, the man said and indicated the room to his right. You must join us.

This is the call of the past to Baruch Kotler, via the voice of an elderly Jew at a down-at-heels Jewish centre, where men and women play chess and hide out from the post-Soviet disaster.

Kotler is a Jewish representative man for our age. His personal path describes a certain trajectory, begun under the Soviets, when men of modestly rebellious nature became targets of the state, were sent to the faraway gulags, entered into a struggle with their prison handlers, which soon became part of the larger global Jewish movement to free “refuseniks,” ending in a triumphant departure and flight to Israel and freedom. Kotler recalls that long-ago trip as being “filled with joy … The prime minister had sent an official plane. They flew from Prague to Tel Aviv, just the Israeli aircrew, two diplomats, Miriam, and him. It was the high point of his life.”

Aspects of this portrait remind the reader of the best-known refusenik, Natan Sharansky, who emigrated to Israel in 1986 and for a time led his own political party. The Betrayers does not insist on this link, although Kotler, like Sharansky, is a key player in Israeli governments, a kind of national hero, who at the novel’s outset plays a role in plans by the government to uproot Jewish settlers.

We meet Kotler as he flees a scandal in Israel four decades after he escaped from the Soviet Union. His refusal to be blackmailed by political opponents has led to the publication of pictures revealing his affair with a much younger family friend. Together, he and his young lover have come to Yalta to lie low. There, Kotler confronts the reasons for the long-ago collapse of his life in the Soviet Union.

The Israeli material is what Bezmozgis uses to frame The Betrayers, at its outset and its conclusion, while the bulk of the novel takes place in Crimea. The classic frame story Bezmozgis has devised, beloved of narrative masters from Henry James to Philip Roth, demands not length or depth of detail but fleet concision. Frame novellas, like Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, are lovely things the reader can hold in the hand and examine like a well-cut gem. They can be read in a sitting or two, almost as if one has encountered the teller and is, for a time, under his or her spell. Reading The Betrayers in this light tempts one to push the frame—the Israeli material—into the background, in order to focus on the main story at hand, that of Baruch Kotler’s betrayal in 1970s Moscow.

The lead-up to this betrayal is presented in precise and ironic detail:

A young man, a lapsed musician turned computer scientist, embraces his Jewish identity and resolves to quit the Soviet Union for Israel, his ancestral homeland. His application for an exit visa is routinely, arbitrarily denied by the Interior Ministry for unsubstantiated “security reasons”—even though he possesses no technical knowledge that isn’t already old news in the West. He is branded a traitor, fired from his job, designated a criminal—since it is a crime to be without work in the workers’ state. He falls in love with a young woman … she, just as arbitrarily, is permitted to leave … While he waits to join her, he throws himself into activist work and is framed by a fellow Jew, a KGB plant.

Kotler’s second act in Israel—the salvaging of his marriage and his rise to the pinnacle of influence—is a classic survivor’s tale. By risking all with his infidelity, Kotler finds himself reconsidering his Israeli accomplishments.

In a narrative turn that may be a bit too sharp for its own good, Kotler and his mistress stumble upon key players from his Moscow downfall. Once Bezmozgis has placed his Israeli hero back in the contemporary Russian mess, he is on funny and suggestive narrative ground, which is every bit as propulsive and unexpected as the Limelighters must have been as they belted out their Yiddish Crimean farmers’ song from the stage of the Ash Grove in Hollywood.

Bezmozgis is a fine ventriloquist; he does wonderful voices, sets comically dark scenes with masterfully few details, and the drama of Kotler’s return to the site of his life’s worst turn is pulled off with aplomb, making The Betrayers Bezmozgis’s most successful book to date.

Anyone who has travelled in the post-Soviet East will recognize the dark comedy of scenes like the following, a portrayal of Kotler’s betrayer, himself a Jew, as he confronts non-Jewish Russians at the checkout of a Simferopol grocery market:

—Is there a problem? Tankilevich asked him …

Is there a problem? the Russian mimicked. Not for the likes of you. Never.

—What are you implying, Citizen?

—Implying? I’m not implying anything. I’m stating what is clear as day. You people always know how to get ahead.

—You people. What people do you mean? Tankilevich demanded. If you’re going to sow slander, at least have the courage to speak plainly.

—To say what I’m saying requires no courage, the Russian said. Only eyes in your head. Anyone with eyes in his head sees how you Jews always get special treatment. Isn’t that so? …

—You would like such privileges? Tankilevich boomed. Then you should have lined up in ’41 when the Germans were taking the Jews to the forest!

This is the real awful stuff, which is coincidentally back in the news, due to Vladimir Putin’s cynical use of local history to reassert a Russian empire. Once again the backwaters of once-Jewish Ukraine are at the centre of geopolitical disaster. This knowledge informs Bezmozgis’s well-set stage, where he places the chairs around the fire just so, as James’s narrator does in The Turn of the Screw, to bring his listeners close to the story.