June 23, 2012

Eyes Everywhere


Joseph Kanon is a specialist in fin de guerre thrillers, whose previous novels set in 1945-46 include “Alibi,” “Los Alamos,” “The Good German” and “Stardust.” The period is well chosen: dark secrets are finally coming to the surface, and people are being called to account for what the war has made them. For readers, it’s immediately recognizable territory: the aftermath of the conflict, shabby, filmic. Now, in “Istanbul Passage,” Kanon compounds the fraught postwar mood with a location to match.

Istanbul is, at the best of times, a city divided. Weird currents drag along the chasm of the Bosporus, where Europe and Asia almost meet, and the Black Sea tips into the Mediterranean. Levantine are the mosques and bazaars of Istanbul, and Byzantine its steep, winding streets; but its bars and trams are Balkan, almost Mitteleuropäisch. As the capital of empires Roman, Greek and Muslim, Istanbul stands uneasily between its imperial past and its future as a provincial giant in a secular Turkey.

“Istanbul Passage” is anchored convincingly to locations around the shores of the Bosporus: a clinic in Bebek, a flat in Laleli, a party in Kanlica. Kanon has gotten to know the city well, and he uses its history to good effect — the Ottoman years, the Byzantine sights, the influx of Germans in the 1930s, the exodus of Greeks. There are echoes, too, of Istanbul’s long imperial past as the capital of the Ottoman Empire, not least in beautiful Lily, a worldly widow who first came to the city as a Circassian slave in the sultan’s harem. Now she gives society parties at her waterfront villa. “I didn’t think anybody was this rich anymore,” one of her guests remarks.

Some readers may find that Kanon’s thriller-ish style takes some getting used to, especially his telegrammatic dialogue reduced. To such. Staccato bursts that. It risks becoming. Unintelligible. Occasionally tension drains as conversations drag and too many meetings are arranged — even with the hapless Anna, who lies comatose in bed while Leon rambles. But “Istanbul Passage” is enlivened by intelligent plotting and its vivid evocation of the city itself, a setting rich in centuries of intrigue.

Read more on The New York Times: Eyes Everywhere

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