by David Bezmozgis
Little, Brown and Company, 256 pp., $16
What if a national leader chooses to bring disgrace on his family rather than compromise his political beliefs? This is what happens in David Bezmozgis’ tautly written novel The Betrayers, which was recently granted the National Jewish Book Award for fiction. As in his two prior works of fiction, Natasha and The Free World, Bezmozgis concentrates on the unique struggles faced by Jews who fled what was once the Soviet Union.
The protagonist of The Betrayers is Baruch Kotler, who suffered 13 years of imprisonment in the Soviet Gulag before moving to Israel and becoming a celebrated political leader. This is Natan Sharansky’s real-life story, of course, and apparently his body, too. (In addition to having a wry sense of humor like Sharansky’s, Kotler is short, stocky, and bald.) But utterly unlike Sharansky, Baruch Kotler has both a mistress, Leora, and a blackmailer. In order to avoid allowing the latter to take control of his political life, he flees Israel. The resulting scandal not only tarnishes his public image but also pains and humiliates his wife and children. Attempting to explain his position on the phone to his outraged daughter, Kotler is unwavering: