Saturday, August 04, 2012

Espionage, but Better: ISTANBUL PASSAGE by Joseph Kanon

Early last week I read an espionage novel that left me discouraged and confused, after slogging through more than 300 pages where the action never quite lit up, and the protagonist got dumber in each chapter.

So I was especially glad to slip into the pages of ISTANBUL PASSAGE by Joseph Kanon, a master storyteller who grasps the human issues of espionage: loyalty, courage, betrayal, lust, an insistence on power or control, and always, always, planning in as much detail as possible. Because such planning comes readily to Leon Bauer, he's found it easy to do small courier tasks that he realizes are related to war and politics -- small ways to help, during World War II, but now, in 1945, less and less important. He's not much bothered by that. A U.S. tobacco employee in Turkey, negotiating for R. J. Reynolds in Turkish tobacco purchases, he and his German Jewish wife Anna embraced Istanbul as their true home, after marrying and dodging the fate of so many Jews in Europe.

But Anna is in the moral equivalent of a coma -- listening to him perhaps, but not necessarily knowing who he is. She's probably not coming out of her clinic/hospital room ever again, although she doesn't show the signs of aging that already plague Leon. What loyalty does he owe to her? How long can he thrive as a friend to the other men in his life, when he's without love or tenderness from a woman? More urgently, what is he supposed to do with the apparent escaping Nazi he's just collected as part of his clandestine chores -- especially when he is suddenly the prime suspect in an embassy murder?

Leon's tender and passionate efforts toward the women around him and his dogged loyalty toward his friends -- complicated by both the crime police and the secret police fastening on him and his life -- turn this rich and layered novel into a memorable exploration of risk, choice, and ultimate costs. The portrayal of Turkey and of the secret and above-board efforts to bring some goodness out of the close of Europe's devastating war are impeccably detailed by Kanon.

I haven't read Kanon's earlier work (although I'm sure I saw the film based on one of his books, The Good German). Now, though, I think I need to. This kind of depth is scarce and worth appreciating. When it's braided this way with insight into an ancient nation, and with suspenseful plotting and deft twists, it's three times as good.

Note: There's an except from the book (released in May 2012; Atria) here:

And for those who long to "see" Kanon's Istanbul, there's a video here, as well as some earlier ones that probe this author's spycraft:

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