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Book Review: Last Train to Istanbul by Ayşe Kulin

Last Train to Istanbul is a war-fiction by Ayşe Kulin, first written in Turkish, but the book gained immense popularity, thus it got translated into many languages. The English translation is as good as Turkish, thanks to the brilliance of John W. Baker.

The novel is more about political turmoil gripping Turkey during the period of WW-II than battlefields and all that war-related misery. As the power of Hitler begins rising in Europe, the pressure on Turkey increases because of its strategic location. On one side, British wants to have Turkey to their side without giving any substantial military aid, while on the other side Hitler pushes Turkey towards his party. Turkey’s plight and fight lies in being neutral.

Among all this political chaos and crises, in the novel lies a story of one family that unwittingly gets divided and later they all struggle to become one once again. First off, they are torn away by religious differences and then by Hitler’s policies. The rift in the family dates back to sibling rivalry between two sisters: Sabiha and Selva. Sabiha is always jealous of Selva on many trivial reasons. However things get worsened when Sabiha gets married to Macit, a diplomat in Turkey’s foreign ministry, and on the other hand Selva falls for Rafo Alfandari – a rich Jew from Turkey. The sisters are Muslims. Selva, against the wish of her parents, marries this Jewish guy Rafo. Families from both sides don’t agree to their marriage. As a result, Selva and Rafo leave the country for France. At the time of marriage there was no war…just peaceful days. But little did they know what’s store for them during wartime.

Soon Hitler occupies France and commences rounding up Jews for concentration camps. News of Hitler’s brutalities worries Sabiha about the safety of her younger sister Selva, who is living in South France. Around the same time she gets acquainted to Tarik, who takes French lessons from her. He is one of the able diplomats in the Turkish foreign ministry. He soon gets posting in Paris. At the behest of Sabiha, Tarik goes beyond his limits to help Selva come out of perilous France. But that’s not going to be easy as Tarik thinks. Much contrary to everyone’s hope, Selva gets her Turkish passport done with Alfandari as her surname. After this point, some honest and humane diplomats jump in the plot and save many Turkish Jews, Rafo being one of them, from the wrath of SS.

Turkey being a neutral country puts affront all her efforts to save her citizens regardless of their religion and caste and so on. By arranging a train from Paris to Istanbul, Turkish diplomats manage to save many Turkish as well as non-Turkish Jews from the atrocities of Germans. The thing to note is that the journey takes place through the heart of SS i.e. Berlin and for that matter through Germany. The way people co-operate and feign Turkish culture during their fate-changing long journey, which lasted over ten days, is exemplary. The plot of the book, for sure, is unputdownable, also the unique aspect is that despite having no main characters the novel never slips off the mind. ‘Last Train to Istanbul’ is an amazing war-fiction, much different than other books, and appeals that humanity is stands above all wars and religions.


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