Donald Weber recently spoke with David Bezmozgis about his new book, The Betrayers, which was published last week by Little, Brown and Company. Bezmozgis is also the author of the short story collection Natasha and the novel The Free World.
Donald Weber: I’m curious why you were drawn to the refusenik story based around Natan Sharansky: in light of your core themes of exile, displacement, and history (I’m thinking of the powerful vision of Jewish memory and history in a story like “Minyan”), how does The Betrayers continue or, perhaps, depart from what has engaged your work in the past?
David Bezmozgis: It’s true that the original inspiration for the novel had to do with Natan Sharansky. In 2004, I’d been researching an obituary about Alexander Lerner, another prominent refusenik, when I came upon a curious and compelling detail: Lerner and Sharansky were both in the same circle of refuseniks in Moscow and they were both falsely accused of being CIA spies by another Jew, Sanya Lipavsky. As often happens, it is the curious exception that sparks the idea for a story. Put plainly, I was intrigued by the case of Lipavsky. I wondered what happened to him. I wondered what led him to commit this betrayal. I wondered too what might be the fate of a man who betrayed his own people for a country that subsequently ceased to exist. But deeper still — and this is where the idea accrued for me the necessary substance to sustain a novel — I wondered about the moral and constitutional difference between a man like Lipavsky and one like Sharansky.
The question at the heart of the book is a moral one: Why is one person able to sacrifice everything for the sake of his or her principles while another is not? In other words, the central idea behind the book is one of virtue or goodness. The question is as old as philosophy. What does it mean to lead a virtuous life? I am conscious — I assume like most people — of my own moral behavior. And — perhaps again like many people — I wonder how I would fare if I was ever put to a truly difficult moral test. Would I be able to retain the clarity and the strength of my principles and convictions? Is there a principle for which I would be prepared to sacrifice my liberty and my life? As a writer approaching forty, and a father of children, I felt myself somehow, obliged to tackle this question. In the case of Kotler and Tankilevich, the main character of my novel, I found the framework in which to engage with it. And, in further answer to your question, in the case of these two men I also found the framework to continue the project I’d begun with the first two books: namely, telling the story of the Soviet Jews.
Natasha and The Free World covered, in their own ways, the twentieth century; The Betrayers is deliberately as contemporary as I could make it. And whereas the first two books were concerned with the Soviet Jews’ experiences in the lands of the Soviet Union, Europe, and North America, The Betrayers—though set largely in Crimea — concerns itself very much with Israel. Particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Jews of the Former Soviet Union have transformed Israel, and it is there that their greatest impact has been and continues to be felt. Since the question of Israel’s future concerns me a great deal, I saw the opportunity to combine three of my main preoccupations: morality, Soviet Jews, and Zionism.
DW: About the figures of Boruch Kotler and Chaim Tankilevitch (modeled on Sharansky and Lipavsky), I wonder if you could comment on their respective “moral and constitutional difference[s]”? Each suffers the indignities of Jewish history; each betrays and is betrayed; and each is blackmailed — ironically — by fellow Jews. I wonder if Tankilevitch’s story is even more compelling than Kotler’s?
DB: The moral and constitutional differences between Kotler and Tankilevich have dictated the courses of their lives. Because Kotler did not compromise his principles, he suffered many years in the gulag and ultimately became a famous man and a Zionist hero. Because Tankilevich struck a bargain with the KGB and implicated his friend, he became a pariah. The novel asks — and posits an answer — as to why Kotler behaved one way and Tankilevich the other. That is what I mean by their moral and constitutional differences. Tankilevich defends his position. And perhaps many people would sympathize with him in the end. Kotler also defends his position, though, I suppose, one would hardly expect him to need to do so since he is precisely the sort of person society celebrates — someone like Gandhi or Mandela or Joan of Arc. But this is the crux of the novel: what explains a man like Kotler? And if we all are encouraged and aspire to be like him, are we actually capable of it — or are we, in fact, more like Tankilevich? I think this moral question is relevant to everyone but I think that Jews, particularly after the Holocaust, deliberate exceedingly upon it. Knowing what we know about those terrible years, we ask how we might have behaved in the most extreme circumstances. Would we have betrayed others to save our own lives? Or alternately, would we have had the courage and the strength of our convictions to risk our own and our family’s safety to shelter another? I tried to answer this question as objectively and honestly as I could. And if the novel is provocative, it seems to me it is because of how it answers this question more than anything it says about Ukraine or Russia or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As for whether Tankilevich’s story is more compelling than Kotler’s, I couldn’t say. However, I did want to create a situation in which both men find themselves in dire straits when fate or coincidence conspires to bring them together. In that sense, Kotler stumbles upon Tankilevich at a very decisive moment in his life. I don’t know how compelling Tankilevich’s story would be at most other times, but it’s certainly compelling when Kotler meets him. And I suppose it’s compelling because it distills the problems facing many Jewish communities in the Former Soviet Union — where communities that have endured for centuries are in the final stages of withering away. This situation is made somehow more melancholy and ironic since Crimea had — in the 1930s and again after World War II — been proposed as a possible Jewish state, an alternative to Israel.
DW: For me, Tankilevitch emerges as a figure out of a Malamud story, or a Frédéric Brenner photograph — one of those aged Jews dangling on the edge, a survivor managing, somehow, to hang on. I wonder if you could say a few words about the array of fascinating women characters in The Betrayers. As you draw them, the women deepen, complicate, our understanding of Kotler and Tankilevitch.
DB: Though I understand what you mean about Tankilevich being reminiscent of a Malamud character — I think, for instance, of the importunate DP Shimon Susskind from “The Last Mohican”— the Malamud character who influenced the book most was actually Yakov Bok from The Fixer. To no small extent, the principled and unyielding Bok was in my head when I was writing Kotler.
As for the women, I suppose they must inflect and complicate our understanding of Kotler and Tankilevich, but to me they aren’t there to serve that purpose. To me they are their equals — interesting in their own right. They are variations on a sort of tough-minded woman who is commonly found among Russians and Russian Jews — though I believe she exists in all nations where women are saddled with innumerable burdens. I admire these women and enjoy trying to see the world through their eyes. I am never as clear-headed and practical as when I am trying to channel their voices. Compared to them, I seem immature to myself.
DW: I wonder how you imagine, or would like to imagine, your attentive Jewish American and Canadian readers to respond to your new novel?
DB: I would like Jewish American and Canadian readers to read the novel the same as any readers anywhere — with an open heart and an open mind. It is how I wrote the book — constantly challenging my own beliefs and feelings in the hopes of arriving at the truth. I don’t expect everyone to agree with all of the novel’s formulations and conclusions. I wouldn’t say I agree with all of them myself. There are ideas the book puts forward as seemingly irrefutable that I am still turning over in my head — ideas, for instance, about an identifiable national character. With respect to Israel, the Middle East, and Ukraine, I tried, to the best of my abilities, to describe the current moment. If I have done my job well, the novel should enable readers to have a conversation about those places — if only within themselves. As for Kotler’s being suspended in time and space at the end of the book — that reflected, for me, a painful admission or realization. In life, we would all like to find some respite, some relief — even, in our weaker moments, to entertain the illusion that there is such a thing as arrival, that we can stay or indefinitely forestall the worst. After some 2,000 years, Israel was supposed to serve this function for the Jews, to be the place where they could settle and find safety and wellbeing. I suppose, by the end of the novel, Kotler, by no means a naïve man, confronts the unpleasant idea that for him and for his people, the uncertain journey continues.