In Translation: Last Train to Istanbul by Ayşe Kulin Train to Istanbul (2002) by Ayşe Kulin

As you may know, I've been reading a LOT of WWII fiction lately, and not on purpose. It's just that all of these writers/books I've been meaning to read have fallen into my lap at once, and it's pretty fascinating to compare them.

Like Suite Francaise, Last Train is one of those novels that speeds up your heart rate and unapologetically raises your blood pressure. Most likely, this is because both are about events that took place during the war (a frantic exodus from the cities as the Germans invaded, the rounding-up of Jews and anybody else the Nazis didn't like the look of). Another thing these two books have in common is that they were recently translated, thus giving English-speakers a window onto how the war affected Europeans from their own perspective.

What makes Last Train so different from Suite Francaise, however, is its structure- Kulin drives the plot forward like the speeding train that ultimately takes the main characters out of France and into the safe haven that was Turkey. I must admit here that I knew absolutely nothing about Turkey's role in the war, but apparently it struggled to remain neutral, fending off Germany as well as England and Russia, all in an attempt to protect its own sovereignty and its people, including its Jews. Several Turkish diplomats from that time risked much by defying Nazi Germany, but they saved many people.

While the novel begins in Istanbul with the family of a highly-placed Turkish diplomat, it quickly moves over to France, where the sister-in-law of this diplomat has moved with her Jewish husband to escape the condemnation of their marriage by family and friends (Muslim-Jewish marriages were not allowed at that time). Thing is, it's the early 1940s and France is now occupied by Nazi Germany. Another Turkish diplomat and friend of the family is posted to Paris, where he organizes a trip back to Turkey through the heart of Europe for a handful of Turkish citizens and Jews (some of whom are not Turkish at all).

The preparations for the trip itself, along with Kulin's description of the ever-shifting relationships among the characters, takes up most of the novel. Families divided by resentment and disappointment, friends bound together by a shared sense of duty, Turkish officials walking a delicate diplomatic tightrope- all of these situations make up the rich tapestry that is Last Train.

And its because of this richness that some of the novel's loose ends stand out so strikingly. As the train speeds across Europe, the action becomes so compressed that some of it seems disconnected from the rest of the plot. Characters appear suddenly and are somewhat shoehorned into scenes. Some events left me wondering "what was the point of telling us about that?" Despite the bumpy ride, though, Last Train is definitely worth reading. You know, if you like history and a good story and reading literature from other countries. Enjoy!

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