Imagining Histories

Reviewed by Joel Martineau

David Bezmozgis models the protagonist of The Betrayers on renowned refusenik and Israeli political figure Natan Sharansky, who was born in Russia after World War II and who attempted to emigrate during the Brezhnev era, only to be arrested in 1977 and charged with passing state secrets to the American Defense Intelligence Agency. Sharansky was sentenced to thirteen years of forced labour; his wife, Avital, worked tirelessly to develop an international campaign that secured his release in 1986. Sharansky immigrated to Israel, became a spokesman for Russian Jews’ absorption into Israeli society, and was elected to the Knesset in 1996. He held various Ministerial posts during the ensuing years but resigned from cabinet in 2006 to protest plans to withdraw Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

Bezmozgis assumes this life history for his central character, Baruch Kotler, and imagines a thirty-six hour whirlwind that begins with clandestine agents blackmailing Kotler in an attempt to hush his opposition to the withdrawal. Kotler refuses to betray his political convictions and instead betrays his wife and family: he impulsively jets away to Yalta, accompanied by his young mistress. Kotler’s family had vacationed there in his youth and his choices of destination and companion are foolishly nostalgic. In Yalta, a remarkable coincidence lands him in the home of Chaim Tankilevich, the very man who had betrayed him to the KGB some forty years earlier. Bezmozgis establishes this crucible for exploring the novel’s themes so economically that I willingly suspended disbelief, fascinated by prospects. The remaining two-thirds of the compact novel work through Kotler’s complex reconciliation with Tankilevich. Kotler realizes that his betrayer has led a shamed, hollow life, unable to reveal his true identity, his Zionist dreams extinguished by existence within the witness protection program, while the vitality of the Crimea crumbles around him. Kotler also realizes why Tankilevich denounced him to the KGB interrogators. The novel’s trajectory suggests Kotler will recognize his own betrayals and return to his wife and daughter and son with the humility necessary to seek forgiveness.

Whereas Bezmozgis has the confidence to model his protagonist on a real life character and assume that readers will recognize and accept the departure into fiction, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer prefaces All the Broken Things with an “Author’s Note” that asserts “The strangest of the truths in this novel are the facts of a bear wrestling circuit in Ontario, the production of Agent Orange in the small town of Elmira, Ontario, and freak shows at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE).” Her project braids these conveniently forgotten “truths” into a narrative that will compel readers to revise their Ontario histories into more inclusive, responsible accounts.

In contrast to Bezmozgis’s taut, poetical sentences Kuitenbrouwer writes in an expository style that usually tells rather than shows. She sets her story in 1983 and 1984, when protagonist Bo turns fourteen. A few years earlier his family escaped Vietnam on board a rickety boat; the father perished at sea, and mother Rose (Thao), Bo, and younger sister Orange Blossom now occupy a church-sponsored home in Toronto’s Junction district. Rose works miserable shifts at menial jobs and drowns her sorrows, ashamed of her severely deformed daughter. Bo fights the school bullies, cares for Orange, tries to cheer Rose, and cringes when his overly earnest teacher directs attention his way. A carney spots Bo battling the bullies and recruits him to wrestle somewhat domesticated bears. Bo excels, gains perspective, and improves family prospects; then the real snake enters the garden. The carnival proprietor spots Orange, sees a perfect attraction for the seediest section of his show, and conveniently spirits away Rose and Orange. The narrative requires Bo to work through the combination of exploitation and abandonment, and—to Kuitenbrouwer’s credit—as the story becomes increasingly fable-like it gains credence. A statement Kuitenbrouwer made during an interview illuminates the importance of the novel:

The most surprising thing to discover about the manufacture and spraying of Agent Orange over Vietnam . . . was that the companies that produced it knew the dioxin by-product was both carcinogenic and mutagenic. Vietnam is in its third generation of AO mutations. The companies and countries involved in this heinous war crime have a responsibility to clean the soil of Vietnam but they resist. . . . They knew they were not only defoliating Vietnam but that they were violently attacking civilians. This behaviour is genocidal.

This review “Imagining Histories” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 125-26.

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