An Israeli leader confronts the man who sold him out to the KGB decades earlier in a striking exploration of memory, patriotism, faith and duplicity from Bezmozgis (The Free World, 2011, etc.).
As the novel opens, Baruch Kotler, a 60-something Russian-born Israeli politician, arrives in Yalta as damaged goods. His support of a Jewish settlement on disputed land has outraged the prime minister, one of whose lackeys attempts to blackmail him with photos of his young mistress. Refusing to back down, he pursues some peace and quiet with said mistress, Leora, in the run-down Crimean resort city he fondly recalls from childhood. (The novel is set in August, 2013, and none of the current political turmoil factors into the story.) The home the couple rents, however, is owned by Chaim Tankilevich, who years earlier reported the dissident Baruch to the authorities, leading to a 13-year gulag sentence. If the coincidence seems impossibly unrealistic, the conversations between the two men, and the depth of thought and feeling Bezmozgis brings to them, redeem any such concerns. Chaim has lived on the edge of poverty ever since his betrayal, while Baruch has come away from his ordeal a political celebrity hardly wounded by his affair with Leora. Who deserves esteem or contempt here? Who merits punishment? The debate between the two men is a nakedly allegorical one, connected to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute that lays a scrim over the entire narrative. (Baruch’s son is an Israeli soldier with orders to help clear the settlement.) Taking place over the course of one day, the novel offers no pat resolutions to entrenched arguments. But it gains a satisfying tension from its compression, of two men forced to settle accounts in some way about their past in a culture thick with long memories.
Philosophical, provocative and nervy—an interior novel that manages to encompass a breadth of issues.