David Bezmozgis’ The Betrayers layers questions about forgiveness, betrayal, moral direction and compromise in a plot focused on an Israeli politician’s principled (to him) stand against the withdrawal of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. In taking such a stand, our protagonist, Kolter, is blackmailed and refuses to compromise: as a result his affair with a younger woman is exposed. In an effort to avoid the media spotlight, Kolter and his mistress flee to the Crimea where they encounter – in a twist of coincidence or “fate” (an idea thoroughly explored in the novel) – characters from Kolter’s past that dramatize for the reader ideas of fated encounters and fated actions; morality and moral codes; and how, when and under what conditions, forgiveness can be given? granted? bestowed? burdened?
The novel reads quickly, has compelling back stories for its characters, takes on a sizeable – yet intimate – plot line and set of questions. And it does what good fiction should do: it makes the reader consider a viewpoint that may be different from their own. The book is pro-Zionist and unapologetically so. Its presentation of the Zionist position is not one I am comfortable or familiar with, but I nevertheless – in the reading – was granted a way to think about this position and its people with something closer to empathy than I’d otherwise have been capable of. The novel and its characters aren’t making an argument for Zionist ideas. Zionism is, instead, the undercurrent and setting against which the action, character development and thematic questions are explored; it is taken for granted and given. This sort of philosophy/politics-as-setting allows the reader – or this reader at least – to suspend potential responses or arguments, and to instead explore with the characters the contours of their stories and discoveries.