” I like to think it’s a kind of wisdom. Life is like that, don’t you think? Mostly bad choices. All you can do is keep your balance between them. ” (Ch.7, p.393)
Geographically, Istanbul is a city divided. It straddles Europe and Asia, with weird currents dragging along the chasm of the Bosporus, where the two continents almost meet. The war left Istanbul physically unscathed, but as neutral territory between the waring powers, it has come to function as the center of rumor and intelligence. Everywhere in Kanon’s Istanbul are eyes—even the waiter gathers information for those willing to pay him.
The novel begins in 1945, when wartime organization is being wound down. Leon Bauer, an American tobacco merchant and occasional spy, is given a final assignment. He is to collect a man with classified knowledge of Soviet arrangements at the quay. The man, a member of the notorious Romanian Iron Guard, is to be smuggled through Istanbul, parked there for a day or two until a seat on a plane to America becomes available. But the meeting flares up in unexpected violence when Leon is forced to kill (unknown to him at the time) the man he was working for, who apparently has switched loyalties. The double-cross overshadows the rest of the book.
A dockworker? A thief? Who was anybody? Tommy ordering drinks at the Park, every second a betrayal. Years of it. You can’t trust anybody now, Alexei had said, asking Leon to trust him. (Ch.2, p.89)
From there it’s an incessant game of hide-and-seek, a tale of creeping paranoia, unknown allegiances and motives, as Leon tries to shelter Alexei. The Romanian defector with Russian intelligence is wanted by the United States and its new enemy, Russia. He is far from likable: he was directly implicated in the massacre of Jews in an abattoir at Straulesti. After the Washington tie is lost, Leon realizes the defector’s fate is in his hands. Even the supposedly neutral Turkish authorities are drawn in, currying favor for Russians. The whole story then spirals down to an overwhelming intrigue—too convoluted for my preference—as the net closes around them from all sides.
What do you do when there’s no right thing to do? Just the wrong thing. (Ch.7, p.382)
The heart of Istanbul Passage is not the espionage intrigue but a moral ambivalence. While he is not judging the defector, Leon struggles to reconcile the conflicting demands between society and individual. He has to come choose one at the expense of other. There’s the constant shifting limit of one’s personal morality. Between sheltering a criminal and bringing him to justice. There’s also the guilt of an unexpected affair with a diplomat’s wife, all the more amplified by the fact that his own wife, a supporter for the Jewish cause, lies comatose in hospital. The period and setting are captivating enough to keep me reading in spite of the novel’s slow pace. Kanon’s writing style also takes some getting used to, especially the clipped, telegrammatic dialogue. For me the book is only enlivened by the vivid evocation of Istanbul and rich details of its history.
401 pp. Simon & Schuster. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]