Kanon’s ‘Defectors’ asks moral questions

One of the greatest crimes against a country is treason, spying for the enemy. A recent brilliantly written espionage book, “Defectors,” by best-selling author Joseph Kanon, is both fast-paced and realistic. This Cold War thriller shows the moves and plays as if the characters are in a chess game. Beyond that, it emphasizes the human side, what it is like for family members of a traitor, as well as the motivations of someone who is willing to betray and lie to everyone. This gripping story tells of two brothers divided over Cold War loyalties.

Elise Cooper: How did you get the idea for the story?

Joseph Kanon: The origin came out of something personal. Years ago I worked with a man who actually had a brother that defected. It was a fascinating story to me, and I realized no one talked about the family left behind. Once he had defected, that was the last heard of him.

I thought about the after story, since he did not just vanish. I wondered what kind of life did he have, and what did he do all day.

EC: How did you do the research?

JK: I read about Kim Philby, a high-ranking member of British intelligence who was a Soviet agent. He defected in 1963 after working for the KGB. I had the book take place before his defection because later he became disillusioned, and I did not want him to be a factor.

I wanted the defectors I wrote to be ideological, those that converted to Communism in the 1930s as an act of faith. They thought they were changing the world for the better, now in the frontal lobe, Moscow. This was the high summer for the Soviet experiment, before the admittance that it was a big mistake.

Soviet prestige was at an all time high with Sputnik and the consumer level improving along with the U.S. embarrassments of Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot captured, and the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

EC: Did you actually go to Moscow?

JK: Yes. I like to go to the places I write about, and to walk the city on the ground. I want it to be accurate on how you get from point A to point B. I tracked down where the real defectors lived.

Since the Soviet Union was, and is, a closed society, any housing assignment would show how much the party valued someone, the prestige factor. I made the main character Frank’s apartment right around the corner from where Philby lived.

EC: Today people might think of Edward Snowden. Would he have regrets, does he miss his country and family?

JK: That is a legitimate question. Even today I would not wish on anybody to live in Russia. Although the defectors I wrote about were considered heroes, they faced the salt-line of Russian culture, the international ideals of Communism versus the traditional Russian xenophobia. They were, and still are, a country that always distrusts foreigners. No one wanted to have anything to do with the defectors so they never really participated in Soviet society. Ultimately, they only had themselves to fall back on.

EC: There is an interesting quote by the defectors, where they claimed not to have done anything that would get Americans killed. Please, explain!

JK: Even though they appear to be ordinary people, treason is in their blood. Betrayal comes naturally to them. They told these lies to themselves and others to self-justify. In fact, what they did, led to others’ deaths. Their family was affected with many losing their jobs and came under suspicion. The defectors ignored the fact that they blew up the lives of people around them. There is this 24/7 lying to someone all the time.

EC: Frank, the defector, was pretty unlikable?

JK: He was someone perfectly willing to betray his country and family. He is a narcissist. I did not write him as a sympathetic character, considering he did something terrible and continues to believe in what he did. He has a loyalty to Communism and the KGB. He totally has bought into the myth that they are efficient, knowledgeable, successful and a superior elite group. Yet, he loves his brother Simon and vice versa.

EC: What is the relationship between the brothers?

JK: Simon adored his older brother Frank even though he always seemed to involve him in schemes and persuaded him to do things against Simon’s better interest. This is why their parents sent Simon to a different school, to get away from Frank’s influence. It appears to be about the good brother versus the bad brother. Simon had a conscience, while Frank appears to be amoral.

EC: Joanna, the sister-in-law, still cared about her looks?

JK: So much of her identity was based on her beauty and attractiveness. She lived a tough life in exile, surrounded by surveillance, and had just lost a child, with life taking its toll. She reminded me of the celebrity Marlene Dietrich who was interviewed for a documentary about herself, but refused to be on camera. Both she and Joanna had closed the door and no longer wanted to be photographed. Joanna did not want anyone to see she was damaged and a wounded bird.

EC: What do you want the readers to get out of the book?

JK: I want the story to be entertaining, but also allow readers to learn something. I hope they ask the moral questions, how do we live and how should we live? To make them think what would they have done in that position? There is a minefield of ethical questions. What is the correct thing to do?

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About the Author

Elise Cooper

Elise writes book reviews that always include a short author interview.