Saturday, June 30, 2012
Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon
A man, filled with good intentions, is caught in the jaws of the competing and intersecting interests of global powers in Istanbul after World War II. Istanbul is the bridge between north and south in Europe, and between West and East. It has always been a place of great intrigue and mystery, filled with industrialists and spies. By setting his mystery here after the war, Kanon capitalizes on the reader’s sense of dislocation. We are familiar with the war, but we know little about what happened shortly after, when hundreds of thousands of Jews needed resettlement from Reich-controlled countries and war-time spies were tying up loose ends, chasing double agents and moles.
Istanbul was a port through which some of the refugees streamed, bought from their oppressors by well-meaning Jewish citizens with the intention of giving them passage to some other country where they could set up a new life. Palestine was one of these destinations, by no means the obvious choice.
This is the first novel of Kanon’s I’ve read, but I have taken note of his books and know that his particular interest has been the war years in Europe. He flawlessly captures that insular American consulate feeling, the wide-eyed naiveté gradually devolving into a slight disdain fueled by lack of understanding. The intrigue of a city of spies comes through clearly as well, the confusion and the calculation as one undercover spy after another is picked off, leaving the innocent (and the reader) to figure out what happened and who is responsible and what can be done.
Kanon’s style is telegraphic, abrupt, pointillist when describing a man’s thoughts…rather like the way we talk in our own heads when walking down the street. We don’t think in complete sentences when we are noticing street action. Only words and phrases come to us: red hat, sidling walk, cold, sun. Together these can add up to a larger understanding that we must explain in sentences to another. And there was my difficulty. Not only was Kanon noticing and attaching value to things differently than I might have, he didn’t always give me a complete sentence in which to process his progress. I got the gist, and I got used to it, but it certainly added to the mystery of the piece that I couldn’t completely trust the judgment of the main character and I suspected everyone. The mystery his language produced was akin to that fog of incomprehension his characters were laboring under—who knew what and when, and who held the cards? After my initial reserve I entered fully into Kanon’s vision, and he managed to crank the stress level quite high enough to impel this reader through to the end.
Istanbul comes through clearly: colorful, exotic, dangerous. The sly knowingness in the Turkish character makes the people attractive and descriptions of the city and the Bosporus are irresistible. Makes you want to book passage. Now.
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