Last Train to Istanbul
By Ayse Kulin
Price: Rs 399
Storytelling is a gift. A gift that empowers the writer with a sustained knack of drawing momentum from the destructive powers of his imagination, shaping suspense, and using the right moment to prowl and pounce on the reader’s instincts. The technique works in a variety of genres, historical fiction being one of them. It worked in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, and John Boyne’s The Boy in Striped Pyjamas—both of which were mined with the menace and macabre of the World War II. It was in these narratives that the history felt seamlessly conjoined with fiction, and the artificial simply appeared to loiter into the territories of the real, delightfully so. In Ayse Kulin’s Last Train to Istanbul, it is the staggering absence of all of the above which itches to the bones.
In Last Train to Instanbul, the horrors of World War II emanate from Turkey, a country that maintained a precarious neutrality through most of the war, trading with the both the Axis and the allies until the final stages of the war. This lack of a middle ground is what inspires and facilitates the Turkish diplomats, posted in Marseilles and France, to hatch a daring plot to rescue hundreds of Turkish Jews from the Nazis. A handful of courageous diplomats are instrumental in forging passports for the non-Turkish Jews too, thereby enabling them to join the former troop. The strength of the book, however, lies prominently in the hands of its protagonist couple—Selva, the high-spirited daughter of the one of the last Ottoman Pashas, and Rafael, a Turkish Jew—who fall in love and marry against Selva’s father wishes. Social ostracisation prompts the couple to move to Marseilles, but their lives are rattled when Germany takes over France and Rafael is picked up the Gestapo. What follows next is a 15-day journey that peddles through the war-torn continent, daring the impossible while risking everything in one last bid for hope and freedom to Ankara, which itself is waltzing dangerously on a slippery slope of being taken over by Germany.
At its core, Last Train to Istanbul feels like a desperate attempt to cobble a multitude of characters in a single plot to throw around the weight of the horrors of the WW II. That paves an easy way for clichés to muddy things up. Kulin spends first half of the novel trying to draw the reader into the lives of Selva and her elder sister, Sabiha, who lives with her husband, an official in the Foreign Ministry in Ankara. Parts of it are a high-pitched fulmination of Sabiha being notoriously jealous of Selva’s goodwill, her unheeding abandonment of her husband and daughter, and Selva’s notable benevolence towards her neighbours in Marseilles. The events are unfortunate; but for a writer, they should have served nothing less than a fodder to sink his meal into and made meal out of. It doesn’t happen.
The novel is helmed by a legion of sober realities that could have easily translated into a nail-biting thriller, had the prose been more refined and flexible. In Last Train to Istanbul, Kulin’s work is controlled, but its realities are stifled.
The novels detracts from both pace and theme quite a lot of times. It chugs along until the suspense arrives, too late into the narrative. The lives of the Jews are teetered on the edge, yet it is fear which it fails to arouse. Fear could have been appropriately tapped into making the read riveting, but otherwise tapers into irredeemable jumble of clichés. The emotions, for most of the part, go unsaid and unfelt. I would want to blame it on the translation, but I do not know in what measure or magnitude. Every time I read a work of translation I wish I could read the original just to make sure that I do not miss what the translation is simply incapable of offering. That, I feel, is probably even worse.
There were a few constructions, however, that strike a delicate chord. “They were all over station, going to kill or be killed. People called to each other, some reunited, screaming with joy, others being separated and screaming with anguish. There were the sounds of bells ringing, whistles blowing, train wheels screeching on the rails, and soldiers marching monotonously. And different smells; that distinct, smoky smell of wet steam that fills one’s nostrils; the whiff of perfume from women passing by; the stench of sweat and garlic permeating the coarse clothes of peasants; and the acrid smell oozing from the bodies of young soldiers. Hope and grief coexisted in the station.”
The narrative hops from Sabiha to Selva to the journey in train with some fluidity and helps keep the reader just borderline invested. The characters of Sabiha and Selva are deliciously fleshed out, which is perhaps one of the few saving graces of the novel. Sabiha’s character is more flaccid, and dangles between concern for her sister Selva trapped in Marseilles, and the gradual lack of it for her husband and daughter. Selva, on the contrary, is a pot of goodness who pushes all boundaries to teach the Non-Turkish Jews the language to avert suspicions. All in all, Kulin’s characters are interesting, and sometimes, interestingly weird. Weird, but human. Kulin manages to draw a relatable sketch, but falls short of putting them in perspective. The novel is helmed by a legion of sober realities that could have easily translated into a nail-biting thriller, had the prose been more refined and flexible. In Last Train to Istanbul, Kulin’s work is controlled, but its realities are stifled.