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Review: The Betrayers

Journey through a moral labyrinth

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By David Bezmozgis
Viking, £12.99

The man chided: "No Yiddish and no chess? What kind of Jew are you?" The answer is, a troubled one. Baruch Kotler, the central character in The Betrayers is on the run. He has been blackmailed, betrayed and has turned betrayer. He is in a mess.

David Bezmozgis is hard to categorise. Born in Riga, in Latvia, he grew up in Canada. The Betrayers is his second novel. He is also a filmmaker. It is hardly surprising, then, that his new novel is about homelessness and belonging.

Baruch Kotler and his young lover, Leora, young enough to be his daughter, were both born in Russia but live in Israel, where Kotler has built a successful political career.

Then the phone rings.

He is threatened with blackmail and leaves for Russia. We meet them both in Yalta in the Crimea (a topical location today) looking for somewhere to stay, and Kotler's choice leads him to confront the darkest period of his past.

Choice is a key concept in the novel. When we first meet Kotler and Leora, they are choosing between two apartments. Far more important, his whole political career, which seems to have gone up in smoke, has turned over two choices.

Would he support the coalition government's policy on the settlements on the West Bank? And, secondly, when Kotler is threatened with blackmail, will he give in or stand up to the blackmailers and thereby risk public humiliation?

But the biggest choice of all is not Kotler's. We later meet a second central character, another Russian Jew, Chaim Tankilevich, who was once also faced with a difficult choice and much of the novel turns on how he acted.

This is a deeply moral novel about choices and their consequences, but also about forgiveness and justice. Are they the same thing?

This may make Bezmozgis's novel sound dull and worthy. Far from it. It is a thoroughly engaging read. Kotler and Tankilevich are fascinating characters, and the book raises large issues about Israel, Russia and Ukraine, past and present.

Perhaps the most captivating moment is when Tankilevich is in a small local supermarket and encounters a Russian antisemite.

The prose is full of tension and energy conveying what it feels like to be one of the last Jews in Crimea. And that is not the worst of his problems.

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