Well-loved Turkish author Ayşe Kulin illustrates another angle on the early years of World War II in her 2002 book Last Train to Istanbul. (Translated to English in 2013.) The story is set partly in Turkey and partly in the Nazi-occupied French cities of Paris and Marseille. Two Turkish sisters, their parents, and husbands are at the heart of the story.
Muslim-raised Selva falls in love with Rafo, who is Jewish. Their families in Istanbul are aghast, so the newlyweds move to the more accepting Paris. Of course, they move just as World War II is heating up, but prior to the Nazi occupation.
Sabiha takes a more traditional route, marrying Macit, a staff member in Turkey’s foreign service. Sabiha wishes life was different, especially in her marriage. But Macit is working long hours trying to help maintain Turkey’s position in the world.
In many ways, Turkey itself is a character in this novel. Kulin obviously paints her home country in the best possible light. And the work they do to save Jews from the hands of Nazis is clearly important. Also, Kulin explains that centuries earlier Turkey welcomed Jews expelled from Spain—there’s a pattern here. The author unabashedly sees Turkey’s government as heroic despite their neutrality at that point in the war.
Kulin highlights personal aspects of the frightening drama surrounding the Nazi incursions in Europe, especially France. Still, this is a relatively simple story of two sisters and their families trying to survive the war and reunite safely in Turkey. Selva wishes for approval from her family as well. Sabiha is more pampered and less involved with the world around her. She’s like Betty Draper of TV’s Mad Men, given many advantages but still unhappy.
I know history is complex and most countries have times when they invade and others when someone invades them. But having read The Sandcastle Girls from Chris Bohjalian last year, I know Turkey was brutal to the Armenian people. And of course, today Turkey leans further towards authoritarian rule, as Ruth Ben-Ghiat points out in Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.
As a side note, I found the audiobook narration of Last Train just awful. The narrator uses ridiculously heavy and sing song accents. And his pacing is all over the place. It’s so bad as to be nearly impossible to stomach.
But if you’re curious for a story about World War II that’s not commonly told, this is a good choice. Kulin creates her characters to show the various aspects of the story. And it’s clearly a very dramatic story.