The Wind that Howled

Book: Istanbul Passage

AUTHOR : Joseph Kanon

PUBLISHER : Simon & Schuster

PAGES:  402

PRICE: 499

YEAR:  2012 

Was Alexei there? He was seen, he was with the Iron Guard. But there were no witnesses left among the Jews. So who can tell?
Poornima Joshi  Delhi 

For someone who finds enormous comfort in the genteel probings of PD James’s poet detective in England’s various offshore islands, the intrigues around spies leave me cold. John le Carre is undoubtedly fascinating but it is not him, not even the great Graham Greene that I continually fish out in various insomniacal bursts of nocturnal reading. So it was with trepidation that I braced for the “high wind, the poyraz that howled, scooping up water” across the Black Sea. And before even turning the page, Joseph Kanon had me hypnotically wading through the alleyways of the majestic city that hosts his magnificent spy tale, simply called ‘Istanbul Passage’.

History foregrounds intrigue as Kanon weaves a web in Istanbul, ostensibly neutral during the World War II but in reality serving as a hotbed of diplomatic and intelligence skirmishes. The war has just ended but only militarily. Spies are crawling through the Ottoman city as the Soviets plot against the Americans and the Mossad gets busy smuggling refugees into Palestine.

The historic city hides secrets and spies and its once-resplendent hotels host spooks of sparring nations. Everyone spies on everyone, waiters on diners, wives on husbands and lovers on each other in restaurants, bazaars and the splendid yalis, water’s-edge mansions that dot the coast where the Black Sea merges into the Mediterranean and Asia meets Europe.

Expatriate American businessman Leon Bauer doubles as an undercover agent while wife Anna’s capers with the Romanian, Mihai, smuggling in Jewish survivors from across war-ravaged Europe, shock her into permanent silence. Anna lies in a hospital ward, not speaking and barely listening to Leon’s countless recitals aimed at shaking her into wakefulness. Her past serves as a perfect foil for Leon’s undercover activities fuelled clandestinely by Tommy of the US consulate.

Tommy is leaving Istanbul for good but not before he ropes in Leon for one last assignment: “One more and you are a free man.” A Romanian who knows a few Soviet secrets has to be smuggled in and flown to America on a stormy night. Leon ropes in Mihai and the fugitive arrives in a boat, only to invite a blast of gunfire on the edge of the Bosphorus (Istanbul Strait). Leon and Mihai run with Alexei, the fugitive, and fire back. Someone dies and they flee in a taxi. Mihai recognises Alexei as Jianu of the dreaded Romanian Iron Guard, presided over by Ion Antonescu, Hitler’s wartime ally, who unleashed a reign of terror across Romania.

Alexei, or Jianu, according to Mihai, was the chief operator of the notorious massacre in Straulesti, a slaughterhouse. “They put the Jews on conveyor belts. Stripped, on all fours. They made them bleat, like the animals. Crying, I suppose, may be screaming, but also bleating like they were ordered. Then, through the assembly line, the same treatment the animals got. Heads sliced off, then limbs, then hung up on hooks. Carcasses. And then they stamped them, the carcasses.”

Was Alexei there? He was seen, he was with the Iron Guard. But there were no witnesses left among the Jews. So who can tell?

This is the man Leon has to keep in safe custody till he is handed over to Tommy, the American. Mihai wants him dead. The Soviets are looking out for him. And Tommy, it turns out the next day, has been killed in a shootout on the edge of the Bosphorus! So it was Tommy who shot at Alexei and the rescue party comprising Mihai and Leon. 

Everyone spies on everyone, waiters on diners, wives on husbands and lovers on each other in restaurants, bazaars and the splendid yalis, water’s-edge mansions that dot the coast where the Black Sea merges into the Mediterranean and Asia meets Europe

This is the intricate web that slowly draws Leon in. The Turkish secret police, Emniyet, is now involved. An American diplomat is dead and the Soviets know one of their defectors is being shielded by an American in Istanbul. Altan, a man from the Emniyet, who, perhaps, shares Marina, Leon’s Thursday afternoon paramour, arrives on the scene bearing ominous tidings. Turkey cannot offend its allies, the Soviets in particular. And the Americans want to find the man who murdered Tommy. Should Leon give up Alexei, who is now helpless in his care?

All of this unfolds in the surreal landscape where East meets West in a combustion of colour. A romance in the Byzantine lanes blends into heartbreaking passages about people and their past. “And suddenly he was seeing it, that first Bosphorus spring with Anna, everything in blossom, Judas trees and lilac and yellow laburnum, cherry and soft-green chestnut trees, pulling branches down to smell. Dizzy with it. Years ago, when they had been other people…”

You can feel the city and the ferocity of the wind that bites the couples kissing in the gardens. You can see those who wait for dangerous shipments on the coast. “In Istanbul’s dream of itself, it was always summer, ladies eating sherbets in garden pavilions, caiques floating by. The city shivered through winters with braziers and sweaters, somehow surprised that it had turned cold.”

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2012