The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis

Calendar celebrations are for children and dopes; I join the dopey ranks with pride as I congratulate myself on reading the best novel of 2014 in the last two days of 2014. The novel, The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis, is everything one wants in a novel, and in an impulse purchase.

The half-dozen reviews of The Betrayers from the usual suspect publications offer up plot points and complaint–Boris Fishman in the NY Times wrote a weak piece on it, while David Ulin in the LA Times raised legitimate issues–but few mentioned the great comedy of The Betrayers. Yes, Kotler himself is a comic sort, joking and jiving in his assured manner amid absurd circumstances, but there are terrific scenes of high comedy that deserve attention.

One standout scene features a Jewish fixer named Nina Semonovna haranguing the hapless Tankilevich as he pleads for a mercy from his sentence of servitude. It is a great scene of humiliation and resolve, of competence lording over incompetence. Semonovna’s monologues are brutal and cutting, and would likely get one arrested were they to be voiced in a contemporary American workplace.

The other scene, in Tankilevich’s home, takes place after Kotler has confronted his tormentor Tankilevich, and Tankilevich suffers a mini-stroke/panic attack. Mute and unable to speak beyond grunting and other barnyard noises, Tankilevich thrashes about on a sofa as his wife Svetlana converses with Kotler and his mistress Leora regarding making things right between them. It is a riot of a scene, a model for sustained hilarity.

The somber notes in the novel are sung well–I’m thinking of the email from Kotler’s wife Miriam, and the warm but firm conversation between Kotler and his son Benzion, who faces a moral predicament in Israel while his father flits around Crimea–and it would be disingenuous to call The Betrayers a comic novel. But comedy happens to us all the time, in sickness, trauma, war, flight, cowardice, and in lots of other uncomfortable scenarios where comedy is not welcome. Graham Greene knew this (recall the joking Fowler does at Pyle’s expense upon learning of his death) and Bezmozgis has that same rare gift of making a reader simultaneously uncomfortable and ravenous for more.

Bezmozgis writes effortless prose which likely takes a lot of work. His vocabulary is sharp and his characters possess unique voices and insights. His metaphors are cool and unobtrusive, even heavy ones like the broken plates. None of the worthless contemporary trends apparent in novels by his peers are in him. The Betrayers is his second novel and I can’t wait for the third.

Here are some favorite lines from The Betrayers:

 

While they were speaking, Kotler noticed that some of the people had taken a keener interest in them, as if having picked up the scent.

Kotler had in fact been part of a UN-sponsored mission to see how deeply the Cypriot Turks and Greeks had buried their hatreds. Deep enough for radishes, Kotler had felt. In a generation or two, maybe deep enough for olives.

Tankilevich received this speech as if it were a clobbering, and he slumped down accordingly. And yet, he thought: Clobbered yes, but not beaten. In his life he had known real terrors, real bloodlettings, so this was nothing new. Unpleasant, yes, but it would take more that that to make him fold.

What place did the world reserve for the discarded mistresses of powerful men?

Now, after speaking to Benzion, he saw his mistake, he had engaged in games. Coming to Yaltahad been a game. And staying to confront Tankilevich to satisfy his curiosity? Also a game. Well, he had played games for one day, and one day was enough.

But then, after his ordeal, he was exposed to people in positions of power and saw how many of them were inadequate, even mentally and morally deficient. Little more than noise and plumage.