Thursday, January 26, 2017

"Istanbul Passage" by Joseph Kanon

"They made their way to the bridge through the Karaköy market, sidestepping pools of melted ice streaked with fish blood, strands of wilted greens. Cats lurked behind the stalls, waiting for scraps. There was more food near the steps of the bridge, stuffed mussels and braziers with chestnuts. They stopped for a minute on top, catching a breath before they waded into the crowd. ... There were water salesmen with silver canisters strapped to their backs and hamals wheeling carts and a simit peddler with a tray of bread rings balanced on his head." -- Istanbul Passage, Kindle Locations 5193-5199).
The action in Joseph Kanon's suspense novel Istanbul Passage (published 2012) takes place in 1945. Istanbul is a dark and dangerous city, full of repercussions of World War II. The text passage above, near the end of the novel, is an example of the city background that joins with the fast-paced plot to make the book quite readable. I suspect there are a few anachronisms, but that it's mainly historically accurate about the time, the politics, and the city.

Until the end of the war a few months before the events of the story, Istanbul, thanks to Turkish neutrality, had seen constant humanitarian efforts trying to escort shiploads of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe to safety. In reality, during the war many refugees died in attempting to flee, notably one entire ship full of them, the Struma, a ship that was "sent back, then torpedoed in the Black Sea, everyone down with it." (Kindle Location 566).

In the novel, one more shipload of concentration camp survivors is seeking permission to head away from Europe and the Displaced Persons Camps. They were trying to get to Palestine, which would become the state of Israel shortly afterwards, but which was at that time ruled by the British who weren't allowing Jewish refugees to enter.

The central character, Leon, has played a role in these escapes, and in the novel is trying to save one more boat of refugees. He gets mixed up in a more complex plot.  The war had caused every espionage agency to place agents in the city, and in Leon's world, the agents are all active, competing over a particular man who is trying to escape them. Leon becomes tangled in a web of motives he can't understand, facing dangers he can barely identify.

The book is full of colorful descriptions of the old luxury mansions along the Bosphorous, of both elegant and seedy hotels, of modern offices, of retro bazaars and food stalls, and much more. Quite a number of scenes take place at the Pera Palace, which is also the key location in the history I read recently, Charles King's Midnight at the Pera Palace. For example, a funeral for one of the agents:
"The banquet room at the Pera was crowded, spilling over with consulate staff and Turks who hadn’t been to the church and were now lined up at the buffet table, plates in hand. The food was American, chicken and potato salad and cold roast beef, not even a stuffed grape leaf to remind them where they were."(Kindle Locations 1359-1361). 
There's a lot consciousness of the changing ethnic composition of Istanbul -- the confiscation of property from long-term residents who were Jewish, Greek, or Armenian had constantly changed the neighborhoods in Leon's experience such as this:
"He got off near the Koç shipyards in Hasköy and walked the few blocks to Mihai’s office, an old industrial building given to Mossad by its Jewish owner before it could be seized for the wealth tax. During the war, Mossad had worked out of the Hotel Continental, and some of the staff still preferred it for the convenience, but Mihai had moved his unit down to the waterfront. Aliyah Bet, the illegal immigration, was like Noah’s ark, he’d said. It should have a water view." (Kindle Locations 1868-1872). 
 Or this explanation that Leon gives to a less-savvy colleague who asks what is meant by "population exchanges" --
"After the war with Greece. In ’twenty-three. Ethnic Greeks were sent home. Vice versa with Turks there. Whether anybody wanted to go or not. People who’d been here forever. It was a bad time. You go to Izmir, places like that, it’s still an open wound." (Kindle Locations 2329-2331).
The detailed descriptions of the city made me want to read this novel, although the genre of a suspenseful spy story isn't usually my choice of reading. I enjoyed it just the same. In the Author's Note at the end of the book, Kanon offers this explanation which I find helpful:
"The horrors of Străuleşti, the sinking of the Struma, Ira Hirschmann’s heroic work for the War Refugee Board rescuing European Jews, and the tireless efforts of Mossad le Aliyah Bet (Committee for Illegal Immigration) are all matters of historical record and appear here only as background. The events and people in Istanbul Passage are fiction." (Kindle Locations 5640-5643).

1 comment:

Jeanie said...

This sounds like a good one, Mae. Hadn't heard about it so thank you.