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Istanbul Passage

Joseph Kanon

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: May 28, 2012
Category: Fiction

A brilliant editor told me that the best time to start reporting a big story is after everyone else is finished. The parade of media leaves town, and the people you want to talk to have plenty of time. With nothing much at stake, you get the real story.

I’m guessing that was one of the attractions of Istanbul, circa late 1945, for Joseph Kanon. The war was over, the big league spies had departed, and the only sustained action was the effort to smuggle European Jews into Palestine. A visitor could almost buy the fantasy: “In Istanbul’s dream of itself it was always summer, ladies eating sherbets in garden pavilions, caiques floating by. The city shivered through winters with braziers and sweaters, somehow surprised that it had turned cold at all.”

“Istanbul Passage” is billed as a thriller, in the way that the novels of Graham Greene and Alan Furst are thrillers. That is, there are guns, and they are used. But the book is also about values and codes and honor, the kind of big questions that get asked in great movies like “Casablanca” and aren’t asked nearly enough in contemporary stories. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

For Leon Bauer, an American vaguely involved in the tobacco trade but also an occasional tool of the American consulate’s less diplomatic activities, it comes down to this: “What do you do when there’s no right thing to do. Just the wrong thing. Either way.”

That question makes the book’s title a pun. The “passage” isn’t just about Jews or, more urgently, a former Nazi collaborator who is being smuggled through Istanbul on his way to a debriefing in Washington. It’s equally about Leon Bauer’s moral passage. As in: You give your word to perform a service. Along the way, you learn a few things, none of them savory. Do you walk? Is your word your bond? Or do you think this-is-how-the-world-is and don’t trouble yourself with doubt?

Such questions make for a lot of talk. Exceptional talk: witty, worried, tart, original, credible. Talk, one way, with a wife who has witnessed a great tragedy and tumbled into a silence so profound no one thinks she’ll ever snap out of it. Talk with his consulate contact. Talk with a diplomat’s wife, who provides a smart ear and the book’s hot sex. (There is a prostitute in these pages, but her therapy involves less chat.) And, especially juicy, talk with one of the greatest hostesses in modern fiction. [To read Chapter 1, click here.]

And then there is action, all of it brisk. With many twists and turns that I did not see coming. To say anything about them is to ruin it for you. But, obviously, people are Not Who They Seem to Be.

One problem. I met Joe Kanon at college and had a pretty standard reaction: He was not only the nicest, kindest, wittiest guy in the room, he was also wicked smart. Like everyone I adore, I never see him. I interviewed him 15 years ago, and didn’t run into him again until a brief, recent encounter on the street. Sadly, I must report that I am at a disadvantage when it comes to assessing his work. I’m not compromised — I don’t mark the margins of books that suck, and I’ve marked a hundred great sentences in "Istanbul Passage" — but I was greatly perplexed by the last hundred pages of this novel. No point in trying to graph the action; it was way too complex for my feeble brain. Hats off to those of you who will find Kanon’s triple crosses no harder than the Monday crossword.

“It wasn’t the money, there were always ways to get more money, but the end of things. Just like that. He shivered.”

BONUS VIDEO: Joseph Kanon’s Istanbul