Monday, October 8, 2012

Review of Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon (Simon and Schuster, 2012)

Leon Bauer, a businessman in Istanbul, has spent the Second World War undertaking errands for the American consulate and helping his wife rescue Jews escape from Europe.  In the post-war period he finds himself performing the same roles, only his wife is in a clinic having had a nervous breakdown.  His American handler has arranged for Bauer to meet someone off a boat, a man who was a senior figure in the Romanian fascist regime, someone who persecuted Jews but has valuable information about the Russian intelligence services.  His job is to hide the man until he can be flown to Washington for debriefing.  Only someone else is also waiting at the docks, leading to a shootout.  Unsure who to trust, and with the Americans, Russians and Turks hunting for his charge, he seeks a safe passage for them both out of the country.

In Istanbul Passage Kanon envelopes the reader in the city in the immediate post-war era - a city on the fulcrum between East and West in a country seeking to remain somewhat neutral in the coming cold war.  Kanon expertly recreates its cultural landscape and sense of place - the melting pot of sights and sounds; the busy waterways and markets; the contrasts between rich and poor; and the political and diplomatic haunts of consulates, hotels and private parties.  The characterisation is keenly observed, especially Leon Bauer, who is given the unenviable task of keeping alive a war criminal, someone hated by the Jews he helps rescue, and who finds himself caught in both a political drama and an unfolding romance. The plot is intricately woven and as the story unfolds Kanon ratchets up the tension, performs twist after twist, and shifts the moral terrain.  Indeed, with regards to the latter, the story poses questions about obligation, duty and loyalty in relation to work, family and strangers.  The result is a thoughtful and engaging page-turner.  It certainly whetted my appetite for his other books.

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