The Betrayal: A Novel

  • Helen Dunmore
  • Black Cat Press
  • 336 pp.

In treating the son of a high ranking officer of Stalin’s secret police, a pediatrician and his family find their lives dangerously tied to the child’s in Dunmore’s sequel to The Siege.

Reviewed by Amanda Holmes Duffy

In 1957, poet Anna Akhmatova wrote the following words as a preface to her collection Requiem:

“In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):

‘Can you describe this?’

And I said: ‘I can.’

Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.”

These lines came back to me as I read Helen Dunmore’s powerful and absorbing novel The Betrayal. Dunmore is a prolific British novelist and poet whose best-selling 2010 novel The Siege was set during the German occupation of Leningrad in 1941. It told the story of Anna, daughter of a dissident writer, and her lover Andrei. Dunmore’s new novel The Betrayal takes up where The Siege left off, beginning in 1952, during the final year of Stalin’s brutal regime. Published by Fig Tree UK in 2010, The Betrayal was longlisted for the Booker prize, and shortlisted for The Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and The Orwell Prize for Political Writing.

Andrei, a young medical student in The Seige, has now become a pediatrician. In the opening pages of The Betrayal he is coerced into treating the son of Volkov, a high ranking officer of Stalin’s secret police. Determined to handle himself professionally, Andrei explains honestly to Volkov the risks involved in treatment. Gorya has a tumor on his leg, necessitating amputation, but even with surgery, the cancer may metastasize and kill him.

The risks in treating Gorya are equally life threatening for Andrei. Anything he says and does is likely to be misconstrued. He must walk a knife’s edge and weigh his responses to the irascible Volkov carefully.

But Volkov is also a father, forced by circumstances to do the unprecedented: to trust. In this way, fate links the two men and an uncomfortable bond forms between them. “You’re an Irkutzk boy,” Volkov tells him. “You don’t flinch.”

The Betrayal is a compelling and intelligently crafted story of survival, of one family’s effort to build up their lives and replace the ghosts of the past. “Why do we think that the present is stronger than the past?” Anna wonders. “They are not even separate. The past is alive, waiting.”

The challenge for Anna, her brother Kolya and husband Andrei is to move forward without inviting suspicion or drawing attention to themselves. Anna’s father has hidden his writings in a compartment under the piano stool. Now Anna decides to bury the manuscripts deep in the compost heap at the dacha. “People have to bury their stories,” Dunmore writes. “What’s wanted is an acceptable version, not the truth. Certainly not Leningrad’s truth.”

Dunmore is a master craftsman who possesses the artistry to tell this story as if it were her own, as though, like Akhmatova, she is actually a poet of witness. She evokes Leningrad with a passionate simplicity that brings it fully to life. “The thing about her city,” Dunmore writes in Anna’s voice, “is that you learn it through the soles of your shoes. You walk it, day after day and year after year. From the day you are born you learn every possible permutation of bridge water, stone sky. Your own life becomes part of the alchemy. You’re born and soon you’ll die but meanwhile and for ever you’re a Leningrader.”

The family visits and cycling expeditions to a dacha on the outskirts of the city are described beautifully. We understand that it is through simple domestic chores and elements — the garlic, the smell of earth, the cushions spotted with damp which the family take out to the verandah for tea with sugar, while the samovar hisses — that her characters find the will to survive.

But while Andrei is drawn inexorably into treating Gorya, it becomes clear that this child threatens the lives of Anna and her brother Kolya. This child who needs her husband’s medical care will contaminate and undermine Anna’s life with Andrei.

When I lived in Moscow for two years in the early 1990s, I learned a favorite Russian saying: the past is unpredictable. Truth and history in the hands of the Stalinist regime was malleable. But in The Betrayal, truth becomes inescapable. The interrogation that Andrei endures, his dignified stand for truth and the fierce survival instinct of the Russian people as rendered by Dunmore reminds us that good literature is often the most enduring testament to the painful realities of history.

Amanda Holmes Duffy teaches writing at Northern Virginia Community College. She has edited art listings for “Goings On” in The New Yorker. Her stories, published under Amanda Holmes, have appeared in Ploughshares, Rattapallax, Moxie, Sunday Express and on the Ether Books app for download to iPhone. “Russian Music Lessons,” a nonfiction piece, is in the latest issue of The Northern Virginia Review.

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