Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Friday, February 1, 2013

Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon

Istanbul Passage is the latest (2012) work by American historical novelist Joseph Kanon. Kanon has carved out a niche for himself in the turbulent days immediately following the end of World War II. Previous Kanon novels set in this time period include The Good German (Berlin), Alibi (Venice), and Stardust (Hollywood). Istanbul Passage revisits those days, but this time in 1945 Istanbul, Turkey.

Protagonist Leon Bauer is an expatriate American working for R. J. Reynolds during the war, buying Turkish tobacco to be blended into American cigarettes. On the side, he does some low-level spy work for the State Dept., while his German-Jewish wife works with the with the Mossad le Aliyah Bet to get Jewish refugees out of Eastern Europe (especially Romania in this story) before the Soviets assume control, and then to smuggle them into Palestine. Then, in 1942, she witnesses the horrific torpedoing and sinking of the refugee ship Struma. She never recovers from the shock, gradually withdrawing into a non-responsive trance and confined to a psychiatric clinic. Bauer stays in Istanbul where he can afford his wife's care, and continues his work and spy tasks.

With the end of the war, however, Bauer's spy contact looks forward to returning home. He has one last job for Bauer before quitting his post - meet a boat carrying an anonymous but apparently important man smuggled out of Europe, keep him safe for a day or two and get him on a plane for the US. A simple job - what could go wrong? Of course, everything goes wrong and Bauer's tidy, somewhat boring world gets turned upside down.

As with Kanon's other historicals, the ambiance of the exotic locale and period detail play leading roles in the story. Ancient, complex and mysterious, Istanbul is a perfect setting for a spy novel. How does it rate in the five criteria?
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. Older readers like me remember the novel (and movie) Exodus, by Leon Uris, that told some of this same story about the Jewish refugees, but I'm glad Kanon decided to revisit it now. I was not familiar with Istanbul's central role as a way station for the refugees. Score = 4
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes - although perhaps lacking depth of historical detail. The broad outlines provide an inspiring and cautionary tale about what humans are capable of - both good and bad. However, I can't help but compare this novel to Kanon's Los Alamos, which included a lot more historical detail and characters.  Score =3
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes, although again there's not a lot of detail.  Score = 4
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
No historical characters have speaking roles. Score = 3
  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?
Definitely. Kanon is always a good read, even when he goes light on the history.  Score = 4.

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