You know I just love a good historical fiction, with WWII and ancient history at the top of the list. Between Jeff Wheeler obsessions, I was able to mix in Last Train to Istanbul by Turkish author Ayse Kulin.
Set in Turkey at the onset of WWII, this novel provides a very interesting and rare look into life for Turkish citizens during WWII. While most of us know WWII was a “world war”, in the US, we tend to learn about the major players in the war as they pertain to us: Germany, the United States, Japan and England. We also learn about a very few crucial events: Hitler’s rise to power, the concentration camps, German occupation of France, the bombing of Pearl Harbour, and the bombing of Hiroshima. The actual scope and breadth of WWII is rarely touched on. I’ve been astounded to read so many books lately that touch on the impact of WWII and what it really meant on a global scale and just how many countries and peoples were actually impacted by this war.
Last Train reads almost like two different books. The first half of the novel follows the lives of two Turkish Muslim sisters, Sabiha and Selva. What starts as a tale of sibling rivalry between two high school girls soon morphs into a tale of forbidden love as younger sister Selva, falls in love and marries Rafo, a Turkish Jew. The two escape their families disapproval in France, but soon find themselves caught up in the German occupation of France. While Selva and Rafo contend with the Gestapo in France, Sabiha who has married a Turkish diplomat, maintains her traditional life in Turkey. Despite her husband’s position and their station, Sabiha grapples with depression, explores marital unhappiness, and battles excessive guilt over her sister’s situation, as she was the one who introduced and promoted her sister’s romance with Rafo.
In the midst of the sister’s complex relationship, WWII looms. The second half of the novel breaks from the sisters and follows Selva through France. She becomes highly involved in protecting her neighborhood from Gestapo and eventually joins the Turkish diplomats as they attempt to rescue and remove all of Turkey’s citizens from occupied France. To accomplish this, the Turkish diplomats work tirelessly to arrange a special train to transport their people back to Turkey. The second half of the book discusses the stress and strain as the Turkish diplomats track down citizens who have been caught by the Gestapo. The last third of the book deals primarily with the train ride from France to Istanbul.
Because this novel was translated, I think a lot of the flow of the story was lost. Right around halfway, there were 2 entire chapters dedicated to David Russo, who up until that point had not existed. I had to reread the chapter before those, trying to figure out who and how David belonged in this story. It wasn’t until a bit later that he fit into the book, so that was a bit confusing. Once the book starts following Selva in France, the number of characters goes through the roof and it was difficult to keep track of who they all were and why they belonged in the story. With that many characters, it was difficult for Kulin to flesh them all out, and there were a good many characters that could have been removed and not missed.
While the story of the Turkish diplomats rescuing their citizens was incredible, it didn’t get the attention or power it deserved. It played almost as a back story to getting these folks on the train. Unfortunately, the train ride itself was incredibly boring and didn’t express fully the anxiety, fear, and courage required of a group traveling with Jewish Turks through Nazi occupied territories. They get on and off the train at a few stops, share some stories over food and wine, have their papers checked a few times, deal with cranky children and stinky bathrooms. This section was God-awful boring. In a bid to break up the monotony, Kulin threw in a rape scene, which felt incredibly forced and in no way related to the story overall.
Because Last Train was written by a Turkish author, it is very authentic in it’s cultural references and language. However, as someone totally unfamiliar with Turkey and Turkish culture, I had a very hard time with many of the cultural references and words. A small dictionary or section that helps explain these references and words would have been awesome.
All in all, Last Train providing some amazingly interesting Turkish WWII history but was not engaging on an emotional level. The original may have been incredible, but the translation felt too technical and almost like it was translated verbatim rather than translated with the goal of communicating the flow and heart of the story.
Until next time, happy reading my friends.