Istanbul Passage, by Joseph Kanon

by Robert A. Parker

This 2012 work is superior Kanon, one of his best. It comes alive because of the moral issues that continually confront Leon Bauer, a businessman in Istanbul who accepts undercover jobs, jobs that support the Allied war effort, from an American named Tommy at the consulate. It becomes vividly alive also because of its vivid portrait of Istanbul in 1945, not only in the descriptive passages but also in the evocation of its history—a history that now includes the conflicting post-war interests of the Americans, the Soviets, and the Turks. Not to forget the Jews who came through seeking refuge in Palestine. It is even more intriguing because of a fascinating Colonel Altan, a cynical, and very European, member of the Turkish secret police.

The story begins when Tommy casually offers Leon one last job, to pick up Alexei, a Rumanian refugee who worked for the Germans in World War II and whom the Soviets wish to torture for information and the Americans wish to question. But all is not as it seems, and Leon is forced to assume responsibility for this potential war criminal and see that he reaches American hands. Indeed, the remainder of the novel revolves around this responsibility and Leon’s growing attachment to Alexei as he discovers the humanity in this suspicious and crafty man who has become a pawn in international intrigue. The novel’s moral complexity is intended from the start, for Leon obtains the help of Mihai to deal with Alexei—Mihai knows the local underworld because he runs the Jewish refugees to Palestine—and Mihai despises Alexei as one who persecuted the Jews back in Rumania.

It is Leon and Altan who are the most interesting characters. Leon because he is never quite sure what his actual responsibility is for Alexei and how far it goes; and because he faces a second moral quandary when he falls in love with Kay, the wife of an American embassy official, when he is himself already married. Indeed, he calls daily on his wife, who has fallen into a catatonic state after being traumatized by the sinking of a refugee ship carrying Jewish families to Palestine. In fact, the resettling of European Jews underscores the texture of this post-war period as well as the underground community of Istanbul, for it requires both pay-offs to Turks and a strategy to avoid the British blockade.

Colonel Altan underscores the political complexity of that period, as he must balance Turkish national interests, Istanbul police interests, and the interests of both the Americans and the Soviets. He acknowledges to Leon this balancing act, but not what he plans to do. And so, is he helping Leon or not; and is he plotting to turn Alexei over to the Americans or the Soviets? He is, indeed, a deceptive character, one who brings to mind the Claude Rains of Casablanca. In the end, it is he who controls the outcome, an outcome in which Kanon reveals a cynicism to match that of this character. It is not, for me, a completely satisfying outcome, but I am a romantic at heart, and Kanon is not.

Because of this intricate web of motivation on all sides, the meaning of, and the motivation behind, many of the conspirational dialogues are not always clear. The dialogue is convincingly real, but a second reading is often required. That is, Kanon’s characters often do not point out their frame of reference. The reader must deduce it himself. Another issue that never became clear to me is why Alexei appears to be wanted dead at the beginning of the novel, but then is wanted alive, in order to be interrogated, at the end of the novel. Or did I miss the motivation behind that first attempt on his life?

A minor disappointment is the revelation of the identity of a Soviet spy in the American consulate. It is on this premise that the Americans have asked Leon to bring Alexei in. But the mole turns out to be a minor character, about whom no motivation is given. Indeed, the person’s fate is unclear. The Americans have him, the text says. But it would make more sense to me if it said that the Soviets have him. Is there a typo here? Not likely. But it leaves me lost.

However, all this is minor because that revelation of the mole in the US diplomatic corps is not the point of the novel. The point is the moral quandaries that Leon faces. Should he betray the man he is left in charge of, the man he comes to respect and who trusts him? Also, should he betray Kay, his lover who is also married, or betray his wife? Indeed, one might also ask if Leon himself is not betrayed, both by the people around him, beginning with Tommy, and by the ideals he espouses. Leon’s actions at the end, and their interpretation, moreover, also add an irony that matches the cynicism of the author’s Istanbul environment.

To sum up, this is a superior post-war espionage novel that blends history, human drama, and moral dilemmas. It is about both justice and betrayal. Will justice be better served by rescuing this Rumanian, who himself betrayed the Jews, from the revengeful Soviets and then using him for the American’s own purposes? Will justice be served if Leon puts U.S. policy above his loyalty to Alexei, when he learns that the U.S. itself offers no loyalty to Alexei? Thus, it is a choice between betraying Alexei or betraying his government. Moreover, fascinated by his lover, should he betray a wife whom he has already betrayed with a mistress? And the work ends with Leon asking himself if, given the ironic situation he is in, can he free himself by a new betrayal?

Kanon twists himself and his hero into many physical corners as well as moral corners, such as when he and Alexei are taken off a refugee steamship headed to freedom. But he also knows that escaping one entrapment can lead his hero into another. This happens in the climactic confrontation of a prisoner exchange on a bridge, when a crossfire that solves an immediate problem leaves the hero facing still another issue. In this case, a physical entrapment has led him into a moral entrapment.

On to more Kanon, and, I understand, to his return to Berlin (November, 2015)