Joseph Kanon has a gripping, taut, thought-provoking new thriller out, Istanbul Passage. The best-selling author of The Good German has once again crafted a book full of moral and ethical inquiry with
excellent suspense and evocative period and location detail. Kanon portrays a time poised between World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, as well as the city eternally poised between Europe and Asia--the city known both as Istanbul and Constantinople as it has passed through history. It made me think of other cities and other lands known by several names: Beijing and Peking, Russia and the Soviet Union . . . Wait, those cases aren't the same at all! Time to take a look at place names.
Kanon's books make me want to say "If you like le Carré, you'll like Kanon," even though I hate such statements, and it might not even be true. Although, then again it might be. Both men are excellent writers and deal in similar themes and settings, and in Istanbul Passage the main character is even a spy, of sorts. And le Carré; he wrote about the Soviets and the Eastern Europeans of course. Not the Russians. Not until later. . .
Certainly Istanbul or Constantinople has long been a hotbed of spies and a setting for thrillers. Dame Agatha Christie wrote the incredibly famous Murder on the Orient Express in Istanbul, in Room 411 of the Pera Palace Hotel. Long before Hercule Poirot dined there, though, from 660 BCE to 330 CE, the place was called Byzantium, until the Roman emporor Constantine moved his capital east from Rome and established New Rome . . . which everyone called Constantinople, or the city of Constantine.
When the city fell to the Ottoman Turks, followers of Islam, on May 29, 1453, the new ruler immediately began referring to the city as Istanbul and changed the cathedral of Hagia Sophia into a huge mosque. (But some Europeans still called it Constantinople. Some called part of the city Stanbul. And exactly 559 years later, Istanbul Passage was published, on May 29, 2012. Premeditated history geek appeal, or eerie coincidence? . . .)
In 1930, Turkish authorities formally requested foreigners to use the name Istanbul when addressing mail to residents of the city. The mosque closed in 1931 and reopened as a museum four years later, part of Turkey's modernization efforts. And the intrigues continued; the city has been the setting for numerous thrillers, mysteries, and novels for decades, in addition to the popular song "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," which includes the lyrics "Every gal in Constantinople/ Lives in Istanbul, not Constinople/ So if you've a date in Constantinople/ She'll be waiting in Istanbul."
One of the issues that besets careful writers and editors of period thrillers and mysteries is historical accuracy. When writing about a specific place at a specific time, what was that place called? As the above brief divagation makes clear, it can get very complicated.
Sometimes it's simple: Beijing and Peking occupy the same spatial dimensions and location; the only thing that changed is the way that the Chinese characters are transliterated to the Roman alphabet.
Byzantium, Constantinople, and Istanbul all occupy roughly the same area, but of course over centuries borders change slightly as cities grow.
But not so with Russia and the USSR.
Recently an editor friend bemoaned an error in a manuscript he saw; the writer referred to the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the United States and Russia nearly came to nuclear war over missiles in Cuba. Except that never happened. The USA and the USSR, or the Soviet Union, were the antagonists in 1962.
From its founding in 1922 to its dissolution in 1991, the Soviet Union encompassed Russia--as well as the Ukraine, Byelorussia, Azerbaijan, and many other areas. The Russian Empire existed until the revolution of 1917. So . . . what if there's a novel set in that area between 1917 and 1922? Huh? Is it set in the Russian Empire? It can't properly be the USSR. . . .
Historical precision often matters to writers, editors, and readers. (Of course, sometimes it doesn't, in fiction that deliberately plays with convention.) But howling anachronisms can catapult a knowledgeable reader right out of an otherwise absorbing narrative and land them right back in their chair, checking references in books or on the web.
Luckily, Kanon's novel is set firmly in Istanbul, in 1945. But mysteries about how to deal with names at the intersection of time and place do exist. Maybe we can just think about them . . . in the Twilight Zone.
Want to keep up with my reviews and all of Barnes & Noble’s exclusive reviews, author interviews, videos, promotions, and more? Please follow us on Twitter: @BNBuzz!
Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services and the College of Mount Saint Vincent Language Institute.
You must be a registered user to add a comment here. If you've already registered, please log in. If you haven't registered yet, please register and log in.