Book Review : Joseph Kanon

Istanbul Passage

Joseph Kanon

Simon & Schuster

Pages 401

How do you do the right thing when there are only bad choices to be made? Can a hardened war criminal have a conscience? Is the line between good and evil really very thin? These are some of the problematic questions thrown up by  Joseph Canon’s new novel. Reading it on the heels of watching the Richard Gere starrer “ Arbitrage” (about the morals of high finance) one realizes that today’s  increasingly complex world throws up the same eternal questions: those debated upon by the  ancient Greeks, the stuff  of  their epic tragedies. The axiom, that nothing really changes holds true. How can it— Man, the pivotal player continues to be  propelled by the same dark emotions of greed, lust, envy, et al.

With this as its subterranean text, Canon’s novel stands as an intimate exploratory portrait of  Istanbul post Second World War:  a neutral city straddling Europe and Asia  with shadow players seeking dominance on  the world stage. Set in the early years of the Cold War, it has   the US and Soviet Russia treading warily to establish their respective `blocs’. Remember the Marshall Plan and its ensuing role play?

Comes Leon Bauer, expatriate American businessman married to a German Jew—ostensibly engaged in the tobacco trade.  Why ostensibly, because,  wait a minute– he is also a spook for the CIA. He does the odd undercover jobs and courier runs to support the Allied post war effort. But,  given  a routine task  of escorting ex-Romanian Nazi war criminal Alexei Jianu,  to a waiting American aircraft, he finds events  turns bloody. A complex nightmare ensues. There follow  plenty murders and an unexpected love affair.   The backdrop of constant and complex maneuverings of the American, Russian, Turkish and Jewish Secret Services—keep one riveted till the final denouement.

But this is not simply a spy thriller set in an apprehensive  city preparing for the exigencies and self –questioning of  post war relevance in a new world. It is much more.

Canon superbly brings out the decadent and opulent atmosphere of the late Ottoman Empire with the involvement of `Lily’ –one of the last remnants of the late Sultan Ahmet Pasha’s harem—now a rich Istanbul hostess, a  pragmatic Altan of the Turkish Secret Service, the bumbling and seemingly incompetent Turkish officer Gulun, and the humane and helpful Armenian whore Marina.

The Jewish Underground is headed by one named Mihai. He uses Leon’s Jewish wife  Kate,  to smuggle out East European compatriots  to Palestine—to the newly carved  state of Israel. But an accidental capsizing of a ship drowns over 400 Jews, mostly children. This brings the guilt-ridden Kate into a quasi– comatose state brought about by a violent nervous breakdown.

To complicate matters further,  Kay Bishop, wife of Leon’s  soon–to–be CIA boss at Ankara,  falls in love with Leon.  All these eventful episodes  hone Leon’s amateur skills in espionage and boost his love life a la James Bond.

Unlike Orhan Pamuk’s aesthetic rendering of a time gone by,  Canon’s portrait of Istanbul is sparingly painted;  the sights, atmosphere and backdrop are rendered with crisp but stylish economy. His literary style  too is not laced with Pamuk’s descriptive narrative but is hallmarked by continuous dialogue that propels the plot forward at a steady trot.

Canon is  author of the acclaimed `The Good German’. His work is considered to be of the same relevance as that of  John le Carre or  Graham Greene. In  exploring a  post Ottoman Istanbul,  hub for refugees and spies,  he  provides an evocative setting for intrigue, moral turpitude and a world polity made of constantly shifting loyalties set in the city’s picturesque bazaars, mosques and faded mansions of yore.

Manju Kak