Istanbul Passage, Joseph Kanon

This is a tale of post World War II espionage that packs a punch. Even though I wanted to stop reading because of the staccato writing style, the bursts of confusing thought, as if someone was talking, thinking, then speaking again, never quite finishing or expressing the original thought, I kept being drawn back, neglecting all else, to finish it in one day.  I began to think that, perhaps, it was the author’s intention to keep the reader as confused as the characters caught up in the mystery, to give the reader the charged feeling of tension the characters experienced. Perhaps the disjointed style was deliberate to make us understand how disjointed this whole spying process really is and was. It was very clearly cut throat. Everyone was used. People were commodities and considered very expendable. Whatever device the author was using, it certainly worked for me. I could not put it down until the end.

The novel is composed of seven separate sections, each named for a different Turkish location and the action that occurred there. It begins with a scene in which two men are waiting for a boat to arrive with a secret passenger.  Soon it becomes apparent that they are both engaged in work of a clandestine nature. During World War II they were involved in espionage work. It seems that post-war, they are still somewhat engaged in those activities. They, and their families, have both been permanently scarred by the effects of the war, and they are motivated by that pain to continue their efforts.

Leon, who works for a tobacco company in his public life, works for the Americans, on the side, in his secret life. He is awaiting the arrival of a Romanian, a victim of the war, but he knows nothing else about the objective of his mission or about the man. Who was this person? Was he a friend or an enemy? Was he a criminal, a killer, a Jew? Who was he saving and why? Leon just blindly followed his orders. Mihai, who works for the Mossad, rescuing Jews, before and after the Holocaust, is doing Leon a favor because he speaks Romanian, and there is a possibility that an interpreter will be necessary. Leon’s wife used to work with Mihai and is now in a sanitarium. Her mind has shut down from all that she has witnessed. When Leon visits, she neither reacts nor responds. She has retreated into a world no one else can enter. It is from his visits and monologues with her that we learn more about Leon and his past.

When, suddenly, men attached to the American Consulate are murdered, Leon becomes involved and is thrust into a larger plot. He is drawn into the maze of the investigative machinery of the Turks and the deeper undercover work of the Americans. There are bad apples everywhere, and at first he is shocked and ill equipped to deal with the work on so sophisticated a level. However, we soon learn that he is a quick study, and the reader is also suddenly more aware. The previous opacity becomes clearer for them too, and the story really takes off in several exciting directions.

The story emphasizes the fact that spies are everywhere and they are all watching each other. It is an unending game of chess using people instead of inanimate pieces. The Turks are watching, the Russians are watching, the Israelis are watching and the Americans are watching; they each have their own agenda and brand of tactics, some much more brutal than others. Can anyone be trusted? Can anyone be bought for services if the stakes are high enough? Is survival the ultimate motive?

Once in the game, is there any exit from it? In the end, who can Leon trust, his friends or his enemies, or perhaps both? Was everyone compromised? Does each serve their own purpose? Is everyone simply using each other? Is the enemy the only one he could truly trust, because they both were the ticket for each other’s survival?

The relationships between the characters seemed too incestuous at times. Coincidence sometimes played an unrealistic role. The writing style was confusing with the short staccato sentences. Still, I couldn’t put it down so the writer accomplished his purpose. He wrote a really good, action-packed book, and the ending was not obvious at all, so it held me until the final page.

Finally, I was left with some compelling questions. There was so much betrayal. Was it all worth it? Is there ever a good purpose to spying or a good conclusion? Is the spy a willing conspirator or a captive audience with no choice once he gets in because he gets in too deep? Is there always an innocent victim? Do the means really justify the end? Perhaps the road to Hell is truly paved with good intentions.


About omasvoice

Who am I? I am you. I am everyone out there who loves to read and discuss and voice an opinion!
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