SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The big war is over. The Cold War has just begun. And Leon Bauer, an American tobacco man, wonders how to fit into this new world. Bauer and his wife, Anna, a German Jew, made it to Istanbul just before World War II began and with his U.S. passport and fluency in German and Turkish, the tobacco man became useful to allied intelligence.
But before he picks up a more peaceful life, Leon Bauer is given a last big job. He's supposed to slip Alexi, a Romanian defector with important Soviet secrets, out of Istanbul. Alexi's secrets might help old allies, but the defector once helped massacre Jews in Romania. Leon Bauer is being asked to help a man in this new war who represents what he fought in the last one.
The storied, intricate, contradictory city of Istanbul is a fitting backdrop for Joseph Kanon's new book, "Istanbul Passage," which Kirkus Reviews calls an instant classic. Joseph Kanon, former publishing executive and author of previous bestsellers, including "The Good German" and "Los Alamos" joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
JOSEPH KANON: My pleasure.
SIMON: This novel opens with Leon Bauer and a friend, confederate, Mihai, an old comrade waiting for a package, Leon says there's a new war on now and Mihai says be careful you don't get to like it. Is Leon Bauer just afraid to go back working for R. J. Reynolds?
KANON: I think that he's been drawn to - you know, during the war there's a certain amount of glamour, patriotic glamour, attached to the secret world. And one of the things that's going to happen to him in this story is learning that when you get involved in spinning some webs, you're inevitably going to get caught in them yourself.
Mihai is an old hand at this. He works for Mossad. He's been getting Jewish refugees out. Istanbul was one of the very few escape valves that was still operating during the war, and he's experienced. He's hardened. And he realizes that not all is going to be as clearly black and white as it was for Leon during the war.
SIMON: Help us understand Istanbul because in many ways that's the other protagonist in this novel.
KANON: Istanbul is in a sense how the book started. I, you know, like any tourist I fell in love with it and thought this would be a great excuse for coming back again and again to do research, but the larger answer of course is that the period that particularly interests me, which is the war and its immediate aftermath, it had a very singular position in the world of intrigue.
It'd long been famous for this. I mean, under the Byzantines and other the Ottomans it was a place famous for daring-do and intrigue. But during our time, it had become a neutral city right on the fringe of the war and as a result, it was a magnet for spies. It was one of those places where Germans and Russians and British could actually meet in somebody's drawing room all during the war.
It was, in essence, a kind of Casablanca, as we saw in the movie. But now, that time is coming to an end, and what sort of life are they going to inherit, these people?
SIMON: You set novels, as we mentioned, in Los Alamos and in Berlin and Istanbul. What comes to you first? Characters, a story, a time or a place?
KANON: It's really the place. It began with Los Alamos. I went there as a tourist and became so intrigued and fascinated and I wanted to know what it was like to have been one of the scientists. What was it like to be part of the Manhattan Project? Berlin fascinated me because of the American occupation, about which I knew relatively little at that point. I think most of us don't know a lot about it.
So you follow your interests. Once you saturate yourself in the place and its sort of layering of history, the characters suggest themselves and once you have the characters, then you're there.
SIMON: A conundrum that seems to keep coming back to Leon Bauer is that just a few years before he would've happily, usefully, and dutifully helped to dispatch a man like Alexi who had the blood of a massacre on his hands. And now he's being asked to help Alexi because he can be useful in a new conflict. It does raise the questions as to what you can really believe in.
KANON: Very much so, and it also raises the question of the complexity of everybody. You know, Alexi is not just one thing. One of the undercurrents, I hope, in the novel is Leon experiencing him. You can make a snap decision about someone. You can condemn him. You can say he belongs in this pigeonhole or that, but it's never quite satisfactory. People are a lot more complicated than that.
There's a scene early on. Alexi is a chess player, and he's playing with himself and Leon says how do you do that? And he said, well, you switch the board around and one of the interesting things you discover is that it looks entirely different when you're playing from the other side. It's not just a question of guessing or empathy, it's really a question of being in someone else's shoes and I think that's part of the "passage", in quotes, that Leon has to go through with him.
SIMON: You know, when I read that scene I wondered is this a metaphor and then I thought, nah, that's too easy.
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SIMON: It was a metaphor, wasn't it?
KANON: Well, it was a kind of metaphor but not necessarily for the whole book.
SIMON: Yeah. We certainly don't want to give away the ending, but Bauer, businessman that he is, comes up with a bargain for his conscience. Do those kind of bargains really exist?
KANON: I think they do. I think that this is part of living. And I think it's, you know, we all tell each other stories so that we can understand more of the variety of experience that's around us because we're going to have to make these decisions. I think day by day often we're taking them in very small steps. They are not certainly as dramatic or highlighted as they would be in this sort of novel, which is one of the reasons we have these novels.
But we're nevertheless making them all the time ourselves. We're always making personal moral decisions.
SIMON: You have been called the new Graham Greene - or the next Graham Greene - so many times but as you're no doubt aware, anybody who writes an espionage novel that's successful gets called the next Graham Greene.
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KANON: And the next le Carre, both of which are flattering comparisons. So they just keep coming.
SIMON: Well, I mean, it's a little bit like being the rookies on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Does it carry a certain sting at the same time too?
KANON: No. I think it's a flattering comparison and I think essentially what's being said when people pigeonhole you this way is that there's an, oh, a certain - along with the entertainment quality which I hope that the books have, a certain level of seriousness and purpose. And I hope fine writing.
SIMON: Are you making exploratory trips elsewhere in the world for your next novel?
KANON: I am. It turns out that I'm going to go back to Berlin. I just have not exhausted it as a subject of interest to me. This time I want to focus on East Berlin and the rise of the DDR, which I think here is just perceived as another Soviet client state but in fact is so much more interesting. It was a real anomaly of its time and place.
SIMON: Joseph Kanon in New York. His new novel is called "Istanbul Passage." Thanks so much.
KANON: Thank you.
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