Unhappy return to Mother Russia

David Bezmozgis’s novel about an Israeli politician with a controversial stance on the settlements lacks the nuance of his earlier works.

Kiryat Arba. The novel’s protagonist believes the army should leave the settlers in the West Bank. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Kiryat Arba. The novel’s protagonist believes the army should leave the settlers in the West Bank.
I felt angry with David Bezmozgis while reading his new novel. It is about a once-prominent Soviet dissident named Baruch Kotler, a now high-ranking Israeli politician who has become caught up in a scandal and flees the harangue of the press by taking his young mistress to Yalta, where he grew up. His wife and two grown children are mortified as photographs of him and his lover are splashed on the cover of the major Israeli newspapers. Kotler’s affair was revealed to embarrass him by others in the government, because he refused to remain silent about his belief that the Israeli army should leave the settlers in the West Bank, even though current popular opinion and the Israeli government were saying otherwise.
My anger had nothing to do with Kotler’s stand on the settlements or the rationale behind it, but the intransigence with which he puts forth his views. On everything.
Emotions like skepticism or fear or remorse were not in Kotler’s skill set and it felt as if he had been living on auto-pilot for some time now. Everything Kotler said and did seemed to be about Kotler; and he said everything with a zealousness that revealed a man who uses self-righteousness and his own elevated status as a shield against seeing himself.
I wasn’t angry with Bezmozgis for creating Kotler; even though nothing about him seemed genuine; not even his grotesque obnoxiousness. I was angry at Bezmozgis because I had loved his earlier works, which showed him to be a writer of raw and edgy talent who saw the world as the messy, reckless and complicated place that it is. There wasn’t the slightest hint of rigid or narrow thinking in Natasha, his collection of autobiographically linked stories, which told the tales of a sensitive young boy growing up in Toronto after arriving from Latvia with his family at the age of six. Or in his novel The Free World, which focused on a somewhat dysfunctional family of Jewish Russian exiles who were waiting in Italy for the final paperwork to come through that would allow them to leave for Canada and its promised freedom. In both of these fine works, Bezmozgis showed an uncanny ability to find the quiet moments of vulnerability that always find the powerless, and treat these moments with a tenderness and empathy and melancholy that was breathtaking. He embraced uncertainty and didn’t seek clarity of any sort. He knew better.
Not this time. This novel is a radical departure that probably sounded magnificent as a book proposal, but it disintegrates on the page. When Kotler arrives in Yalta with his life in disarray, he accidentally meets the man who turned him in to the KGB decades ago, which resulted in Kotler having to serve 12 long years in a Soviet prison. The accident of them meeting up again never feels believable, but we anticipate that this reunion will bring Kotler to some sort of reckoning.
But it falls flat. It doesn’t even seem real.
When his old foe Vladimir Tankilevich tells him that he turned him in because they were threatening to kill his brother and father, Kotler remains unmoved.
When Tankilevich’s wife begs him to forgive her husband and asks for his help as they are living in dire straits, he remains stoic. He tells her plainly “Svetlana, you may not believe it, but I harbor no ill will towards your husband. So it is not even a matter of forgiveness. I hold him blameless. I accept that he couldn’t have acted differently any more that I could have acted differently... We are all born with propensities and limits. You can no more be reviled for your character than for your height. No more reviled than revered… But it is our character that decides, and the trouble is, we don’t decide our characters. We are born as we are… It is the same with morality, as I was forced to discover. Just as there are people in the world who are imparted with physical or intellectual gifts, there are those who are imparted with moral gifts. People who are inherently moral. People who have a clear sense of justice and cannot, under any circumstances, subvert it.”
Bezmozgis puts these words in Kotler’s mouth without any sense of irony or condemnation. He believes this thinking is the thinking of a hero; someone who is unyielding and arrogant and pretentious and egotistical and ultimately blind to all that surrounds him. Bezmozgis has Kotler deliver this formal statement as Tankilevich is lying on the floor racked with pain and waiting for an ambulance to rescue him. Again, there is no irony presented. Bezgozmis believes in Kotler; just like I once believed in him.