J and The Betrayers are both novels about antisemitism and social violence, both powerful. And yet who would talk about them in the same breath, one a dystopia, the other hyper-realism?
The authors, Howard Jacobson (J) and David Bezmozgis, are a generation and an ocean apart though united by their Queen, Jacobson being British and Bezmozgis Canadian. Jacobson was born in the early 40s, Bezmozgis is in his early 40s. Jacobson was born in the shadow of the holocaust and his writing is haunted by it, Bezmozgis by Soviet antisemitism and the dissidence of the 1970s. Both books are, really, about the experiences of their fathers, though J is set in a near future dystopia, and The Betrayers in the prescient present.
J is brilliant in the first half, Jacobson at his darkest, most hilarious, sardonic, cutting, echoing holocaust deniers in his reference to (all caps) “What happened if it happened.” In
Britain an unnamed country, another holocaust an unnamed social terror has resulted in an outwardly pleasant and free society, which is in reality highly controlled yet constantly erupting in casual extreme personal violence. The best of this novel is the brilliant portrayal of what is said and unsaid, the surface and secrets, the repetition of history. The thesis about antisemitism’s necessary social function as a channel for aggression dominates the second half. I wasn’t persuaded by that (if it was even meant seriously), but the responses of the main characters did: I had the same reaction when I visited Auschwitz.
I was walking around the tarry smelling field where the crematoria used to be, possessed by two conflicting thoughts: that I wanted to make many Jewish babies; that I wanted to disappear along with all Jews and end this for once and for all.
In The Betrayers, an Israeli politician on the cusp between middle and old age arrives in the Crimea with his much younger lover. There he encounters his past as a Soviet dissident and the elderly Russian Jew who denounced him, leading to his imprisonment in the gulag 40 years earlier. The main character, Baruch Kotler, has political views antithetical to mine, but that didn’t stop me from weeping at the novel’s end. This is Bezmozgis’ second novel, and he is a fine writer, competent in the best sense, digging deep into human complexity, frailty, and need with compassion and beautiful language.
The Betrayers was written before the recent crisis in the Crimea, but anticipates it: Ukrainian, Russian, Jew, Tatar, the region is rife with alliances and conflicts that go back centuries. Betrayal, personal and political, is the titular theme, but there is so much more to the story: it’s about love, survival, principle, the past haunting the present, and in that shares a common territory with J. Specifically and richly, it’s about the Soviet Union cum Russia, while J is about Britain, but the books are so penetrating because the stories are also universal.
These are both books I need to own in paper.
I’ve periodically wrestled with my identity as a writer: am I a Jewish writer, or just a writer, or do my other life experiences dominate? As an abuse survivor, as an urban Canadian, as a vegetarian (yes, I do eat granola), as mother in a multi-racial family, someone who doesn’t go to synagogue anymore but talks to God, as a shamanic healer with reiki hands?
I don’t know. But there is this: if I can stand alongside these two writers, then I am in good company.