Book review: Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon

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JOSEPH Kanon is gamekeeper turned poacher, a successful publisher turned bestselling novelist, first with Los Alamos, a spy thriller about the making of the Atom bomb.

Istanbul Passage is his sixth novel, and he has now marked out his territory: the immediate post-war years a time of uncertainty in which old “blacks” turned “grey“, in which allegiances and enmities shifted, and war criminals were as likely to be found useful as to be put on trial.

Istanbul – Constantinople, Byzantium – is where West meets East. Turkey, neutral in the war, courted by both Germany and the Allies, now wary of Soviet ambitions, the city housed competing networks of spies who eyed each other across the cocktail bars of the great European hotels. Now the war is over, but the game goes on.

The hero of Kanon’s novel is Leon Bauer, an American unfit for war service, working for a tobacco company. His German Jewish wife, Anna, worked for Mossad, the Israeli agency active in the illegal transportation of Jewish refugees to Palestine. Her work provided cover when Leon was recruited as a spy by the forerunner of the CIA. Now the organisation’s activity is being curtailed, his controller, Tommy, about to be recalled to Washington. Leon himself is stuck in Istanbul: Anna has had a nervous breakdown, and is in a clinic, unable or unwilling to speak. Meanwhile Tommy has one last job for him: to collect a man coming out of Communist Romania. He calls on the help of Anna’s former colleague Mihai. Things go wrong. A man is shot, and Mihai recognises their package as Alexei, a member of the Romanian Fascist Iron Guard, a butcher of Jews. The Americans want him, but so do the Russians. Meanwhile Colonel Altan of the Emniyet, Turkish State Security (secret police), takes an interest. He too wants Alexei – but why? Altan is the best character in the book, impressive, intelligent, alarming and credible.

The plot is involved, sometimes confusing, always compelling. Leon , almost against his will, finds himself committed to getting Alexei out of the city, out of Turkey. Alexei is a killer, utterly ruthless, yet Kanon contrives to make him strangely sympathetic; he is the product of a world in which there is no secure morality, in which you kill or are killed, in which the victor today may be the victim tomorrow, the torturer become the tortured. Kanon presents us with a world as morally ambiguous as John Le Carré’s.

The city itself is lovingly evoked in its fallen state, no longer the capital of a great empire, not even the capital of the diminished Republic of Turkey – that is Ankara – but still inhabited by the ghosts of its past glories; there is even a rich woman, a friend of Leon’s and a great hostess, who as a child was a slave being prepared to serve in the harem of the last sultan. One has the impression that Kanon knows the city well. His Istanbul is a city where life is cheap and certainties dissolve.

There is abrupt and violent action, but much of the narrative is carried on in dialogue. This demands close attention, because much that is said is intended to deceive and much that matters is to be found in the silences between exchanges. Like Le Carré, Kanon sometimes prolongs scenes after the point has been made, and, like Le Carré again, the romantic interludes – Leon’s affair with the wife of the American ambassador – seem almost perfunctory, as if he accepted that a spy novel demands some sexual interest and felt obliged to provide it.

One might also object that Leon himself is more a necessary device than interesting character. Scenes in which he recounts events to his silent and perhaps uncomprehending wife in her room in the clinic may seem somewhat clumsy – one wonders too if it might not have occurred to him that the room could be bugged. But these are minor quibbles, and there is indeed no reason why the central figure in this sort of novel should be interesting. One might even argue that to make him interesting as an individual risks deflecting attention from the story. The hero of the morally ambiguous spy novel is often properly someone to whom things happen, who must react to events, rather than being in control of them. This was something that Eric Ambler, one of the masters of the genre, realised, and it may be said that Kanon follows Ambler’s practice.

It is testimony to his own achievements that it is reasonable to compare Kanon to Ambler and Le Carré. There may be a better American writer of the spy novel than Kanon, but if there is, I haven’t come upon him.

Istanbul Passage

BY Joseph Kanon

Simon & Schuster, 404pp, £12.99