A Literary Cavalcade

Literary comments by Robert A. Parker on a wide range of serious 20th and 21st century novels

Tag: Joseph Kanon

Defectors, by Joseph Kanon

Here is another marvelous work from Kanon. This author often focuses his thrillers on a specific location, and does so again here. In the past, it has been Los Alamos, Berlin, Hollywood, and Istanbul, among others. Here it is Moscow. And it is about two brothers, Simon Weeks, and his older brother Frank.

Following World War II, the brothers, who were close, worked in parallel espionage tracks for the Unite States, Frank in an active role for the CIA and Simon at a desk job in the State Department. Then, one day in 1949, Frank vanished, only to turn up in Moscow. He had betrayed his country for a new ideology. And Simon recalled how a friendly Frank had often in the past milked him for information, asking what was going on at State.

The novel opens in 1961, when Simon, now working for a book publisher, journeys to Moscow because his brother has written a memoir about his double life in the United States. Simon’s company has decided that the book is going to be a best seller, and has agreed to publish it. And who better to edit the manuscript than Frank’s brother on its staff?

In the memoir, Frank describes how his political thinking shifted course after volunteering in Spain in the 1930s, how he began passing on information to the Soviet Union, even betraying Latvian activists, and how he began plotting his escape. It is not clear why the Soviets are allowing him to publish this memoir abroad, but the assumption is that it is because his story shines a positive light on Soviet espionage operations.

The book opens with Simon’s arrival in Moscow, and the reader experiences not only the brothers’ reunion from Simon’s viewpoint, but also the mixed emotions Simon has about the meeting. For he both loved his brother and felt betrayed, remembering how Frank used to pump him for State Department information. Yet he also was looking forward to being with him again, and in Moscow he finds him still friendly and gregarious.

But gradually he begins to wonder if his brother has an ulterior motive for either publishing the manuscript abroad or for choosing Simon’s own company to do so. In any event, Simon is determined to do a professional edit of the manuscript, which means getting Frank to offer deeper explanations for his actions and also to fill in potential gaps.

In passing, we would note that Kanon does not include here any of those editing sessions, with their give and take, even though it might offer deeper insights into the brothers and help us understand their relationship, both past and present. One suspects Kanon does not do so because, a former editor himself, he deemed such conversations, especially in depth, not appropriate for a thriller—and would, in fact, bore the reader.

Instead, the novel focuses on Frank’s motive in bringing his brother to Moscow. In a surprise twist. Frank tells Simon that he wants to defect again, back to the United States. He is disillusioned by life in Moscow, as is his wife Joanna, and hates that the distrusting Soviets have assigned a man to watch him constantly. His demand is that in exchange for returning to the States and providing Soviet secrets to the Americans, he and his wife be given a new identity back home.

Kanon will follow this revelation with additional twists, one after another, often reversing the reader’s expectations but all typical of a superior espionage thriller.

The next twist occurs when Simon deduces that his brother does not really intend to defect but is planning to betray the Americans in order to enhance his own reputation in Moscow. And so he makes a plan to foil his brother. Except, in implementing his own plan Simon forgets certain details that put at risk his reversal of Frank’s plan. Whereupon, Frank steps in and helps him achieve his objective—and then does not. At the very end, in fact, the author introduces an ironic twist that seems simply one too much. And prompts me to wonder why authors so often fall in love with irony. Why do they think it offers an ideal punch line to end a story? Instead of trying to come up with an ending that becomes a final character revelation.

But the effectiveness of this novel depends on more than its twists. It also depends on the portrait of Moscow itself and on the characters these two brothers encounter there. The first is Joanna Weeks, Frank’s wife, who followed him to Moscow long ago. She is a former flame of Simon’s, and now Frank has used that relationship to intrigue his brother into helping his defection—by saying she, too, is unhappy in Moscow and this will enable her to leave. While Simon himself, filled with memories of that past relationship with Joanna, must tread carefully, because she does not yet know of any plan that will enable her to leave.

Another major character is Boris, a KGB man assigned to watch over Frank and protect Soviet interests. He is almost a comic figure, as he continually keeps his distance, but he is always there as a reminder that every movement, every conversation by Frank and those he meets is being carefully monitored. He is a constant reminder, Frank says, that he himself has no freedom in this country he has fled to. Boris will also play an important role in one of the novel’s final twists.

Significant roles are also played by Tom McPherson, a Look photographer and Hal Lehman, a UPI reporter. Tom serves to convey messages or information back and forth between the Weeks brothers and the American embassy, and Hal even participates in the eventual escape plan. They are able to do this because they are free to move about and talk to people on both sides of the ideological curtain. Of course, they also recall the suspicions of the press that were often expressed by the Russians even then. But, at the same time, they help to expand the horizon of this tale, reflecting not only the interest in this story back home but also the potential repercussions these characters will face once they arrive home.

In sum, I now eagerly await the next Kanon thriller. What city will he choose? What intrigues, what human relationships, what double dealings will he explore next? (January, 2019)

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Leaving Berlin, by Joseph Kanon

This is a marvelous espionage novel from 2015. It is set in Berlin in 1949 during the historic Air Lift, and it richly evokes that bombed city and its survivors, along with an atmosphere in which every encounter, with both friends and strangers, raises suspicion. The novel also works because of the moral issues that these characters face, as they struggle to survive in their world of conflicting political interests. Who is truly loyal to the Americans, to their German friends, to the East German regime, and to the Russians? It is not easy to answer when one’s own survival often depends on deceiving others.

The intrigue begins for the reader when the novel’s main character Alex Meier, a promising Jewish writer who once fled Hitler, goes back as a spy to Berlin, where he grew up. The CIA has agreed to erase his leftist ties in America if he pretends to support the new East German government. Just as Anna Seghers and Bertolt Brecht, who also appear in the novel, actually did. To earn his clean slate, Alex must befriend a former lover, Irene, who is sleeping with a high-ranking Russian, and from her learn more about Russian strategy for East Germany. Meanwhile, the East Germans, to whom he is pretending loyalty, also recruit Alex to befriend the same woman and inform them as well about Russian strategy. He thus becomes a new version of a double agent. And these conflicting objectives will soon lead him to facing such choices as silence, betrayal, and murder.

Indeed, our hero Alex learns quickly that the loyalties of those he meets are going be difficult to determine; and this begins with his first rendezvous, which results in a shootout, a death, and accusations of betrayal against a man he thought was a friendly American contact. From there, Alex begins his supposed mission at an East Berlin cultural center, where other Germans such as Brecht have returned to promote the culture of the new East German regime. But even there he discovers divided loyalties—among those who believe in themselves first (like Brecht) or in German culture, those supporting the new East German political state, and those mainly fearful of the Russian occupiers. And some of these empathize with Alex, but do not trust him. Thus, the motives of every character become more and more hidden and more and more diverse.

The end result is a plot line that twists and turns, as Alex tries to satisfy all his contacts, not betray himself, retain the love of Irene, and serve both the Germans’ and the Americans’ needs. It is an almost impossible task. It also continually raises moral issues about loyalty, both personal and political, and how much the end justifies the means. And so Alex is trapped amid moral and political quandaries. One of his major issues is trust. Who can he trust? For he is attempting to avoid suspicion for killing an important Russian. He is trying to help two friends flee to the West: Irene and her brother Erich, who has just escaped from a slave labor camp at a Soviet uranium mine. He is also seeking to thwart attempts to murder him. And he is trying to figure out who in the CIA has betrayed him.

This uncertainty of life in Berlin in 1949 is mirrored in both the rubble and the people. As Jake Kerridge in The Telegraph describes the Berlin atmosphere: “What makes this novel stand out is its portrayal of an East Berlin literally and psychologically gutted.”

In addition, Philip K. Jason in the Washington Independent Review of Books, extends this portrayal to the author’s style. He cites “carefully crafted dialogue [that] conveys enormous amounts of information, [which] feel incomplete. Do you ever walk into a situation in which everyone knows what’s going on except you? It’s something like that. Every word and sentence is crystal clear, yet the context and import remain undefined. This… is a stylistic device shaped to express uncertainty—what living in Berlin at this time feels like. Readers feel the overwhelming pressure of facts that don’t mesh.”

The result of this blend of moral complexity and political uncertainty is an action-filled finale in which an amateur spy like Alex unexpectedly becomes highly professional and creates an elaborate double-dealing plan that is difficult to follow, and yet manages to bring his situation and this novel to a conclusion. It also produces a series of surprises, primarily two unexpected reversals of loyalties, that are more to marvel at for their creativity than to accept for their believability.

Moreover, his plan also appears to enmesh Alex in a world he has been trying to escape, the implication being that his success in fulfilling his mission may well draw him more deeply into a world of espionage he wishes to avoid. This is symbolized by an American wife who has achieved the release of her East German husband by offering his captors what she considers tidbits of unimportant information. Which reverberates on a more significant level when Irene herself reveals she had offered what she considers minor information about Alex to her Russian lover.

This is one of Kanon’s best works. It is truly a thriller, not a literary work, but at its heart it explores moral and ethical issues that have always interested me. When, in other words, can you accept your hero killing another human being? Out of self-preservation, yes, but in cold blood? When can one lie, even to one’s friends, to serve a greater good, or in order to turn one’s enemies against each other? And when can love be used to serve political reasons?

Unlike recent Le Carre novels, the rationale here seems to be not to justify what is right but to address what works. What is practical, not what is moral or ethical. The result is a fast-moving work, which espionage novels should be, but not a novel with emotional depth. Its characters live too much in their political and intellectual worlds. They are too intent on self-preservation. What this novel does have, however, is moral richness, both from its setting and from the complex motivations and loyalties of its characters. (July, 2017)

Istanbul Passage, by Joseph Kanon

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)