Book Club: The Betrayers
Our Waterstones Book Club choice is The Betrayers, David Bezmozgis' searing novel about a man whose principles are tested to the utmost extremes.
The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis is a compelling story of loyalty and intrigue. Set in a small crumbling resort in the Crimea, two men meet after many years apart and the consequences of decisions made years ago come to haunt them. Read the opening pages below.
A thousand kilometers away, while the next great drama of his life was unfolding and God was banging His gavel to shake the Judaean hills, Baruch Kotler sat in the lobby of a Yalta hotel and watched his young mistress berate the hotel clerk—a pretty blond girl, who endured the assault with a stiff, mulish expression. A particularly Russian sort of expression, Kotler thought. The morose, disdainful expression with which the Russians had greeted their various invaders. An expression that denoted an irrational, mortal refusal to capitulate—the pride and bane of the Russian people. That Leora persisted in arguing with the girl proved that she was the product of another culture. In Israel, notoriously obstinate country, argument could be sport, sometimes engaged in for its own sake, sometimes to accomplish something. But this Levantine penchant for argument was of no use in a Crimean hotel at high season. Much had changed, Kotler observed—the very existence of this modern hotel and a few others like it; the vacationers in their Western fashions and their brash, contemptuous, cheerful, money-induced postures; all the visible appurtenances of progress and prosperity—but at the root, where it mattered, there was no change. One had only to look at the Russian girl’s face. A people’s mentality, this hard nut, mysterious and primitive, resisted change. Yet to espouse such a view was now considered provocative, and it was precisely this sort of provocative thinking that had landed him in his predicament, Kotler thought gravely— but not without a twist of ironic satisfaction.
Leora spun away from the registration desk and strode over to Kotler. He regarded her as she approached, a strong-minded Jewish girl, dark curls flying, black eyes fierce with indignation, her solid, compact figure radiating rebuke. Perhaps someone could think, considering them, that here was a dutiful daughter vacationing with her father. But wasn’t that yet another of the changes, the increased number of daughters and fathers who seemed to be vacationing together?
—The cow says they have no record of our reservation, Leora announced. An outright lie. I was tempted to tell her whom she was dealing with.
—I’m sure it would have made a profound impression.
—I wouldn’t be so dismissive of your importance.
—Well, there’s something I’ve seldom been accused of, Kotler said.
—I don’t find this nearly as amusing as you do.
—All right, Leora, what do you propose we do? Write an open letter, stage a hunger strike?
Each trailing a suitcase, they stepped from the coolness of the marble lobby into the bright glare of the esplanade. In his disguise of white Borsalino hat and dark sunglasses, Kotler blinked out at the tourists who flowed past, the waiters who raced among tables at a café nearby, and the customers who beset the souvenir booths along the stone wall. Beyond which: the sea and the sunbathers on the gray pebble beach. So how much had really changed? Kotler thought. Fifty-three years ago, had the picture been so very different? There’d been no modern hotels, and the offerings at the cafés and souvenir booths hadn’t been quite so eclectic, but there had still been plenty to enchant a ten-year-old boy. Kotler recalled the open-air concerts, the hikes with his father in the surrounding hills, the excursions to the Greek ruins and the Italian fortress, and the long, aimless, scorching days at the beach. They had spent an entire month this way, he and his parents, their only such time together. In the scheme of his family’s story, this one month assumed a legendary, halcyon quality. They never succeeded in repeating it. The following summer, his mother had a terrible appendicitis scare. The summer after that, his father switched jobs. And after that, Kotler’s vaunted musical aspirations interceded. His par- ents agreed that he shouldn’t spend so much time away from his piano lessons. The great Myron Leventhal consented to take him on, and Kotler traveled for the first time to Moscow. And after that, it was too late. There was always something else he preferred to do. When he wasn’t preoccupied with his studies, he was preoccupied with friends, with girls, and eventually with politics. In retrospect, given the way their lives unfolded, what a shame it was that they never managed to return to Crimea.
Kotler and Leora paused outside the hotel to adjust to their surroundings and circumstances. Leora gazed at the neighbor- ing hotels.
—There’s no point, Kotler said, following her gaze. When I called yesterday, they told me I was getting their last room. It’s August. The town is booked up. Everywhere here we’ll get the same answer.
He read in Leora’s eyes a tempered defiance and disappointment. Tempered, he understood, out of respect and—it couldn’t be denied—concern for him.
—Maybe. But it would take ten minutes to find out.
—I’d sooner not waste the time.
—So what, then? Is that it? Do we just fly back?
—No, we’ve come this far. It would be senseless to leave.
—Wonderful, Baruch. But where will we stay? In a tent on the beach? Like the nudists in Koktebel?
—There’s an idea. I can see the headline and the photo: Baruch Kotler Exposed!
—Yes, and where am I in this photo?
—Beside me. Where else? If this is the way it’s going to be, let them gape.
—I feel I’ve seen enough of those photos.
—Never mind that, Kotler said. Anyhow, we haven’t moved in with the nudists just yet.
Off the esplanade, he flagged down a taxi, and the driver helped them stuff their suitcases into the trunk. He took them back to the town’s bus station, where, not quite three hours earlier, they had arrived on the bus from Simferopol. The atmosphere then had been hectic: vacationers vying for taxis, and a clutch of locals—mainly apartment brokers with brochures and business cards—clamoring for lodgers. At the time, Kotler had paid them little mind. He’d noticed them only insofar as they reminded him that it was with such people that he and his parents had lodged. They had taken a room with a middle-aged Russian couple who lived also with their married son and his family. They had coexisted peaceably, without conflicts, for the entire month, sharing among them not only the kitchen but also the toilet. Simpler times. And now, since it was nostalgia that had, however convolutedly, brought him back to this place, he had no cause to regret what had happened at the hotel. On the contrary, if what he wanted was to revisit the past, to draw as closely to it as he could, then the Russian girl had done him a favor.
The scene at the bus station was no longer what it had been in the morning. Now there were far fewer people about, only a small number of locals grouped together at the end of the plaza, waiting listlessly, some holding their hand-lettered signs across their knees or down at their sides. They roused slightly at the sight of him, Leora, and their suitcases, but none bothered to approach. He and Leora were, after all, unlikely clients, heading, it would seem, in the wrong direction. A thought struck Kotler, and he told Leora to wait with the bags as he went into the bus station to consult the schedule. A stain of pessimism and defeat adhered to the people waiting outside, implicating them in their own bad fortune. Kotler could not repress the suspicion that if they were lingering, if they had failed to attract lodgers, it was for good reason.
—The next bus from Simferopol isn’t due for another three hours, he told Leora when he rejoined her.
—And so . . . ?
—When it comes, I expect more locals will return offering rooms. But that still leaves three hours.
—And those people there?
—Those forlorn-looking people? Somebody should teach them the importance of projecting an image of strength.
—We have three hours. You could give them a seminar.
—Yes, well, perhaps now is not the best time.
—Three hours is long enough to investigate one or two places. If we don’t find anything we like, we can return in time for the Simferopol bus and see what else materializes.
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. When Kotler and Leora started toward the group, two people separated themselves from the others and stepped forward to meet them. They did not appear to be in league; rather at odds. Both were middle-aged women, and each held a hand-lettered sign advertising accommodations. The one who took the lead was stouter and darker complexioned. Her hair had been cut short and dyed an unnatural shade of burgundy. Her features were regular, the eyes, Kotler noticed, a striking dark blue, and though her skin had thickened with age, he imagined that she had been alluring in her day. The second woman was short, shorter than the first, and appreciably shorter even than the diminutive Kotler. She was sinewy, the twin points of her collarbones jutting from the top of her summer frock. She was younger than the first woman by as much as a decade, her hair longer, wheat-colored, and undyed. Each woman wore a small gold Orthodox cross around her neck. Whereas, ethnically, the first woman was harder to place, the second had the snub features of a Russian peasant. Yes, the old game of deducing ethnicity; in this they were all participants, experts.
—Are you looking for a room? the first woman inquired.
—We are, Kotler replied.
—For how long ?
—I have it. If you’ll come with me, I can show you.
—Why should he go with you? the second woman protested. I also have a room. And more convenient. Closer to the beach. Let’s ask the client what he wants.
—Here is the difference between my room and hers, the first woman said. Hers may be closer to the beach by five minutes, but it is smaller and lacks a private bath. So it depends what you want. In my experience, people today prefer to have a private bath.
—And the price? Kotler asked.
—Whatever she offers you, the first woman said, I will match it.
—And the others? Kotler said, regarding those who had remained in place and who, in the shade of the glass-and-concrete hulk of the terminal, followed their conversation with a flat, disconsolate interest.
—You’re welcome to talk to them. But none of them will offer you anything better. And besides, do you have the time to see every place? Why not come with me? I believe you will be satisfied. But if not, you can come back and try with someone else.
—As usual, Svetlana, you’re very aggressive, the other woman said.
—Pardon, madame? Svetlana replied, the French words heavily accented with Russian. Exactly who is being aggressive? You have some nerve to insult me in front of clients.
—It’s correct that my room doesn’t have a private bath, the second woman said to Kotler and Leora, making a point of ignoring Svetlana. But I wouldn’t call it smaller. It is also clean and newly renovated. My husband, a qualified carpenter, did the work himself. And it is much closer both to the beach and the bus station. In the interest of saving time, why not come see it first? To go with her will take you twice as long.
Kotler exchanged a quick look with Leora to ascertain her opinion. What he saw from her was mostly demurral, abstention from the vote.
—Where are you from? Svetlana asked, thrusting herself more completely in front of the other woman.
—America, Kotler said and flashed another glance at Leora.
—Are you Jews? Svetlana asked ingratiatingly, in a tone
Kotler had never much liked.
—Do you ask this question of all your clients?
—My husband is Jewish, Svetlana stated, as though it were an article of pride.
—Oh, and what of it? the second woman declared, stepping around Svetlana. Maybe my grandfather was a Jew ?
—If you’re Jews, Svetlana continued, you will understand what life is like for us here.
—Now you’re Jewish too? the second woman scoffed. It’s news to me. Well, if you’re so Jewish, what are you still doing here? The other Jews, those with any sense, skipped off to Israel at the first opportunity.
—You see what we have to put up with, Svetlana said contemptuously.
—Is your husband from here? Kotler asked casually.
—No, from Kazakhstan, Svetlana said, and added defen- sively, There are many Jews from Kazakhstan.
—Well, I suppose it’s better here than in Kazakhstan, Kotler said.
—If you have to struggle for your daily bread, it makes little difference, Kazakhstan or Crimea.
Kotler turned once more to Leora. He now had no trouble discerning her mind. He could tell that she disapproved of his inclination. She was savvy, disdainful of risk, and far less sentimental than he. Without a doubt, hers was the more prudent course, but he had never been good at stifling the contrarian part of his nature. And he was much too old to undertake a transformation.
—Doesn’t it say in the Torah that you should first help your own kind? Svetlana pronounced.
—Does it? Kotler replied, but he had already made his decision. And even this comment didn’t cause him to revise it.
He gripped the handle of his suitcase and tipped the bag so that it rested on its little wheels. Reluctantly, Leora did the same.
—Very well, Kotler said to Svetlana, after you.
In a small crumbling resort in the Crimea, two men meet after many years apart. Kotler has fled Jerusalem with his young lover after taking a decision which has now cost him everything. Yet the other, Vladimir, would rather discuss the distant past: a long time ago, Kotler was betrayed and imprisoned - and now there must be a reckoning.