Last Train to Istanbul by Ayşe Kulin

17779550Fiction – Kindle edition. Translated from the Turkish by John W. Baker. AmazonCrossing, 2013. Originally published 2002. 395 pgs. Free download.

Prior to the outbreak of World War II, Selva married Rafael Alfandari, a Jewish man whose family settled in Turkey after being expelled from Spain in 1492. Neither the Alfandari family nor Selva’s parents, Fazil Resat Paşa and Leman Hanim, support the marriage and, after being cutoff, Selva and Rafael flee to Paris in the hopes of finding a more welcoming society.

Instead, they arrive in Paris to find the Nazis right on their heels. As the city surrenders, the young couple and their infant son, Fazil, move south to the Vichy-controlled portion of France. Temporarily reprieved from deportation, Selva and Rafael debate whether they should circumcise their son or register him under his father’s name.

Turkey has officially taken a position of neutrality, but both the Allied powers and Germany are demanding the country align itself with their particular side. As an undersecretary to the Foreign Secretary, Selva’s brother-in-law Macit Bey is privy to information about the situation in German-occupied areas and the current prevailing winds of war.

Although his thoughts are occupied with the widening gulf in his marriage and his daughter’s relationships with her mother, Macit does convey enough about the European situation to alarm Selva’s sister, Sabiha. She, in turn, reaches out to her husband’s coworker and asks him to assist her sister in any way he can. As the situation in France becomes more dire for Jews, this diplomat launches a campaign to save the Jewish citizens – and non-citizens – of Turkey, which culminates in one final train ride to Istanbul.

Given how many novels and nonfiction books focused on the Holocaust that I’ve read, I prefer to seek out those dealing with more obscure events or actions during this time period. Kulin’s novel landed on my to-read list because of its focus on the efforts of Turkish diplomats to save Jews.

Kulin’s novel focuses on a single train transporting Jews from Europe to safety in Turkey, and the title of her novel makes it sound like this was the only train to make the journey. In fact, twelve of these trains traveled between late 1943 and early 1944, and many more were likely saved because they possessed Turkish passports issued by diplomats because of minor or no connection to the country. The exact number of people saved is unknown, although estimates are usually in the thousands.

Unfortunately, Kulin’s writing style took what should have been a story fraught with emotion – the separation from family based on religious intolerance, the efforts of parents to save their children from deportation, fear fostered by the actions of the Nazis – and presented in a rather matter of fact manner. For example, the passage highlight below occurs after a young, Turkish Jew is rounded up and sent to a transit camp.

“A soldier put a loaf of bread on a big wooden table and selected someone to cut the loaf into perfect squares using a template. Then the soldiers started distributing the two-hundred-gram pieces to each of the numbers. Numbers—they were no longer human beings. They ate their slices of stale black bread to the very last crumb, licking and swallowing every bit. Then they lined up in front of the door to the stinking toilet, waiting to relieve themselves, before returning to their hut to collapse into sleep on the straw.”

This should have been a moment to infuse the reader with fear for the characters or stress the direness of their circumstances as the novel reached its climax. Instead, this moment reads like a factual report on a series of events — this happened, then this happened, and then this happened.

As I cannot understand Turkish, it is difficult to ascertain if this example is indicative of Kulin’s writing style or that of the translator’s work. The biography included for her in this edition says that she is a bestselling author in Turkey, which made me wonder if her style was indeed lost in translation. However, the biography included for the translator says he was specifically asked to translate two of Kulin’s novels so someone must find his work able to capture her style correctly.

Regardless of whether the writing style comes from Kulin or from her translator, I felt less inclined to pick up this novel the further I made it into the story. It felt cumbersome and cold to read, and I only kept at it because of the unique angle this story offers to the bloated subgenre for Holocaust fiction.

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