By Cassandra Day
Novelist and filmmaker David Bezmozgis spoke this week to an audience at UC Santa Barbara Corwin Pavilion about his 2014 novel The Betrayers, an intense exploration of morality and the human conscience that won the National Jewish Book Award.
The book details the story of an ex Soviet Israeli politician who later in life encounters the man who sold him out to the KGB.
Born in Riga, Latvia, Bezmozgis moved through Austria and Italy as a child, and would later settle in Toronto, Canada at the age of six. This early experience later influenced his writing, which probes the impact of migration on Soviet Jews.
“A large part of this project for me, and for writing it, was straddling these two worlds,” Bezmozgis said of Jewish culture in both the former USSR and North America. “I have been writing books about my community in a way that if you are of that community it will feel authentic, and if you are not of that community, it will feel intelligible.”
Bezmozgis said his most compelling reason for writing this novel was to dissect diﬃcult issues of morality and virtue. “I wonder how many people wonder about the nature of goodness in the world and fidelity to it,” he asked. “In other words, what enables some people to sacrifice everything for their principles, while most others are prepared to compromise?”
Bezmozgis discussed how he created what New York Times critic Boris Fishman called a novel of ideas that is also a page-turner. “In the book, the question is how one man can betray his friend. Was it pure malice? Was it opportunism? Or if he was coerced, does this absolve him?” the author said.
“This question seemed particularly meaningful to me as a Jew who grew up one generation removed from the Holocaust. In the extreme, how would any of us have behaved? Am I what I think I am? Is morality something that can be taught?”
Bezmozgis answered those questions by reading a passage in the book voiced by his novel’s main character. “I accept that you could not have acted any diﬀerently, anymore than I could have acted diﬀerently,” the author recited. “…I saw the human character in its naked form. I saw at one end, a narrow rank of villainy, and at the other end, a narrow rank of virtue. In the middle was everyone else, and I understood that the state of the world is the result of the struggle between these two extremes.”
Bezmozgis said his novel oﬀers one “provocative” answer to the moral dilemma. “If we accept that there are sociopaths and psychopaths in this world, why would we not also accept that the opposite exists,” he asked. “That some people are good, because they are born that way? That there is a limit to how good anyone can actually be? The only way you will know is when you are tested.”
Bezmozgis said his literary inspiration also comes from a feeling of duty as a writer. “I saw it as my artistic purpose to do for my community what so many of my literary heroes had done for theirs,” he said.
After writing about the Soviet Jewish community in North America several times, he was left wondering what he was missing.
“There was one place where Soviet Jews had made a big impact, and were continuing to do so,” he said, referring to Israel. “Actually, there were two places: In Israel, where they transformed that country by virtue of their presence, and in the former Soviet Union, where they transformed those lands by virtue of their absence.”
Bezmozgis also told the audience that he has recently written a screenplay for the novel, that will be updated to the current year. “Bringing the story to the present is one of the motivations to return to it,” he said. “I see in it a chance to comment on our political moment —with the rise of the strong men, a retreat from democratic principles, and the dangers posed by the phenomenon.”
Cassandra Day is a third year UC Santa Barbara student, majoring in English.