They were living through days that—for those who understood what was going on—were dangerous enough to make one’s hair stand on end.LAST TRAIN TO ISTANBUL
We’re onto another book brought to you by my KindleUnlimited subscription. This time, while I was on my latest international trip, I got into a World War II historical fiction kind of mood. I was visiting Budapest at the time, and like most European cities, you can really feel the weight of history. Furthermore, I started Last Train to Istanbul (2002) while actually on a train from Budapest to Vienna. I thought it was rather fitting and I read through this book really quickly–it was just that compelling!
Unlike the Spanish of my last book, I do not have even a passing familiarity with the Turkish language. Yes, I’m still back-tracking making my way through Don Quixote, as I read this back in November of 2018.
Spoiler: The main family of this book (Sabiha, Macit, Selva and Rafo) are fictional, but the actions of the Turkish consulate were historically accurate. Ayşe Kulin even interviewed retired Turkish diplomats for her book’s research accuracy.
A native of Istanbul, Ayşe Kulin was listed as Turkey’s top-earning author in 2011. She is also known for the intensive research conducted for each of her novels. More than one of her books have been made into Turkish films. Kulin′s first book “Güneşe Dön Yüzünü” was published in 1984 and adapted into a film. She was awarded by the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism for this film in 1986. Last Train to Istanbul has been translated into 23 languages was is her second English publication.
The language train has left the translation station y’all! Originally published in 2002, Nefes Nefese was translated into English in 2006 by John W. Baker. While the book makes complete sense and I was very touched at parts, it is overall a bit stilted and often comical in English. A few other bloggers have suggested reading the original Turkish (because it’s so easy) for more impressive storytelling.
Looking at the pages, it was as if he was listening to the voices of foxes in his mind, but he didn’t say anything.
The government was paying a high price in order to avoid this fire spreading throughout the world.
“Let’s go somewhere with different values that aren’t so extreme. Let’s run away from our families’ emotional blackmail.”LAST TRAIN TO ISTANBUL
Fittingly, John W. Baker spent his formative years in Istanbul due to his father’s posting with the British government. He’s the first British writer to have written a play in Turkish, Ihitras (Passion) that was published in 2003.
What I loved:
The historical context. As I stated previously, the author conducted interviews with actual Turkish diplomats for this novel. In some ways, it was like reading a fascinating textbook with a play thrown in.
The Turkish army needed 11 million bullets and 6,500 machine guns. The British were only prepared to supply two million bullets and 200 machine guns.LAST TRAIN TO ISTANBUL
Beyazid II’s statement at the time  was: “It is said that Ferdinand is a wise king. However, the truth of the matter is that by getting rid of the Jews, he has made his country poorer and mine richer.”LAST TRAIN TO ISTANBUL
The religious tolerance. I am an avowed agnostic, but I have a deep respect for those with religious conviction. Since it is nearly impossible to write a WWII novel without mentioning Judaism, I was expecting that focus. However, with the Turkish setting, we were able to gain an Islamic perspective. Selva and Rafo’s relationship shone a light on that separation.
Spoiler: At one point, Macit tries to convince her sister-in-law Selva to persuade her intended Rafo to convert to Islam. However, she states (correctly) that the Jewish religion is passed to children through the mother. But she later contradicts herself by stating that she wouldn’t convert—indeed she observes Ramadan during the novel. This argument is never resolved when it comes to the raising of their son, Fazil. The war probably got in the way…
The language connection. As a blogger covering translated books, I was particularly intrigued by the meta narrative based around learning languages. From the beginning, language acquisition had played a large role in Selva and Sabiha’s lives.
Leman Hanim: “Of course, suitable young men with good educations will be invited to those parties. They all speak several languages and behave impeccably.”LAST TRAIN TO ISTANBUL
While unemployed in France, Selva taught English, though she longed for her native tongue.
Selva: “What’s wrong with teaching English, Rafo? Is it forbidden to teach?”
Rafo: “No, but it is frobidden to be Jewish.”LAST TRAIN TO ISTANBUL
Selva: Apart from the few occasions when she spoke to her mother or sister, and of course Rafo, she had no opportunity to speak Turkish to anyone. She hadn’t admitted, even to herself, that she missed using her mother tongue.LAST TRAIN TO ISTANBUL
With the Turkish consulate’s daring plan to rescue even tangentially Turkish citizens, she now had to teach Turkish to would-be refugees. Though unbeknownst to the consular officers at the start, Selva is going to attempt to smuggle a friend’s grandchildren onto the train by giving them Turkish names and teaching them useful phrases to cover their French origin.
Selva: “Now, I want you to write down these Turkish words together with their meanings, and I expect you to learn them by heart. Ekmek—bread; peynir—cheese; çay—tea; kahve—coffee; gece—night; abla—older sister; abi—older brother; tuvalet—toilet; mutfak—kitchen; oda—room.”LAST TRAIN TO ISTANBUL
The flashbacks. In order to layout a compelling story, Kulin constructed the familial conflict through a series of flashbacks. We learn about Macit and Sabiha’s courtship, as well as the role it played in allowed Selva and Rafo to fall in love. Beyond the main family’s history, we are given flashbacks into the lives of multiple Jewish families scattered throughout France during the rule of the Vichy regime.
What I liked:
The Turkish names. Many times, for English (and especially American) readers, characters names are Anglicized from their native tongue. In this book, the translator kept all of the original and very Turkish names. Some are more easily pronounced by this language-challenged reader than others.
Sabiha, Selva, Macit, Leman Hanim, Hülya, Fazil Reşat Paşa, Tarik and Muhlis. And the two most Turkish names of all: foreign minister Numan Menemencioğlu and President Inŏnü. The more complicated the better!
David Russo’s story. More than halfway through the book, we are introduced to a young man of Jewish and Turkish heritage living a student’s carefree life in Paris. He is summarily arrested and whisked away to a concentration camp because he’s Jewish and he never renewed his Turkish passport. If you’ve seen Schindler’s List you can begin to understand the brutal and harsh efficiency the Nazis deployed during the Holocaust.
What I could do without:
The drama. If you notice the category tags at the top of my blogs, you’ll see “romance” listed today. On Kulin’s Turkish Culture page, Last Train to Istanbul is listed as a romance because of a variety of factors: the flashbacks for Selva and Rafo, Sabiha’s marriage struggles and Tarik’s rocky relationship with Margot. However, despite my previous Goodreads activity in the romance genre, I was less than enchanted with these storylines. They just distracted from the more serious drama of Jews escaping the Nazis.
I was delighted to find such a simple and yet compelling book to read on my own (much less harrowing) recent train ride. Like my mother before me, I have always been fascinated with the World War II area of history. So much happened in so many places, all in the span of less than a decade (depending on the country you’re following, of course). While Turkey has had more than a few struggles in recent memory, it is still a land of ancient history and culture that I long to visit. I stand by my 4* rating for this book.
Also, let me know in the comments what you think of this Turkish angle on WWII history—did you need the romance and family drama?