Hard to imagine any other setting for Kanon’s historical thriller, Istanbul Passage. Post World War II spy intrigues, war criminals seeking new friends, allegiances shifting yet again between America and Russia, battered Jews looking for refuge, illicit romance, the legacy of harems and the labyrinthine streets opening onto the wide waterway connecting two continents. Where better than Istanbul to depict the mire of ambiguous compromises, the sinuous balancing of countries against each other by those too crafty to reveal themselves, the naïve light of idealism shadowing into something dingy but workable? An ancient city that has known many masters and seen so much.
At one point a character in Kanon’s book points out that the Westerners view Istanbul as a bridge between Europe and Asia, but for the Turks, and for the Ottomans in their day, it is the center, not a place to pass through. That tension pervades the novel. The plot revolves around characters seeking passage through Istanbul to escape horrors behind them, either of their own or others’ making. Other characters strive to maintain Turkey’s tenuous hold on living in the center. The main character, Leon, may make a passage or he may join the centuries of tangled roots clinging to Istanbul. In the process he makes a rite of passage through moral compromises and idealistic choices, betrayals and loyalties, that is so subtle and sophisticated the reader never loses interest.
Leon, we hope along with him, is a good man—at least an ordinary man like us who can rise to the occasion when called upon. He’s easy to identify with, but what a tangled mess he gets into without there being an identifiable moment that tripped him up. We know we could have gotten there just as easily. He clings to the notion of doing right—but right for whom? His country? An adrenalin high? Displaced Jews? His wife? During the war, spying and death were easy to justify, but what now?
Then there’s Alexei. Not a good man, not ever, we fear. The classic bad guy, torturing Jews out of racial hatred, inherent badness, a man who kills without remorse. Why should Leon help such a man? Does he have information worth preserving? Does every man deserve to live? Does Leon find it impossible to be responsible for his death—no more reason than that fundamentally moral position? Leon’s most morally admirable friend tells him to turn Alexei over to his enemies who will kill him. Then glimmers of some other sort of man show through as Kanon develops Alexei. Do we feel sympathy for him? Was there a time when he was good but that is past, or do men, like cities, carry their layers forever existent simultaneously? It’s a cliché, but life is complicated. Kanon excels at making us feel that in our bones. Complicated, but also exciting.
Even the trees in Istanbul Passage tell the story—along the Bosphorus the Judas trees will bloom again, flowers hiding the betrayals. Is that enough to make life worth living? This suspenseful, full-bodied novel will hold you in a thoughtful embrace.