Saul Bellow once said that “with a novelist, like a surgeon, you have to get a feeling that you’ve fallen into good hands—someone from whom you can accept the anaesthetic with confidence.” In his second novel, fellow Canadian David Bezmozgis commands that confidence with ease. The Betrayers is a taut, slim book with a stately tone that makes it feel much larger. Most of the action takes place within 24 hours, following 60-year-old politician Boris Kotler as he flees modern-day Israel for Yalta. Russian-born refusenik Kotler is running from scandal. To silence his opposition to the proposed evacuation of a Jewish settlement, anonymous cabinet members expose details of his affair with a younger woman.
The novel relies on an audaciously large coincidence: in Yalta, Kotler and his girlfriend find themselves lodging with the informant whose betrayal sentenced Kotler to 13 years in a KGB prison. If readers swallow this, they will find a story that delivers what the dust jacket advertises—“an intense theatrical experience,” although those theatrics have something in common with the mannered exposition of masque. The novel’s priority is to elucidate and contrast each character’s political and moral motivations. Realism suffers; Bezmozgis has no qualms about allowing a wife to make long speeches on the state of public services in Crimea while her husband’s life hangs in the balance. The result is closer to a debate than a novel, but for lively topical discussion of what it means to live a moral life, The Betrayers is just what the doctor ordered.