Book Review: Last Train to Istanbul

Last Train to Istanbul was written by Ayse Kulin, a Turkish short story writer, screen writer and novelist. First published in 2002 in Turkish as Nefes Nefese, it was later translated into English in 2006 by John W. Baker, and published by Everest Yayinlari in the same year. A later publication came in 2013 by Amazon Crossing.

Last Train to Istanbul is the story of a Turkish family living in Ankara, who undergo overwhelming challenges brought on by both the modernization of Turkey, and by the effects of World War II. Kulin uses her talent for research and skill with narrative to highlight Turkish cultural shifts, and historical experiences that are less-known to the international community.

Several themes emerge in Last Train to Istanbul, each of which deals with the move from traditional to modern Turkish life, and the effects of these changes on women. Kulin is able to use the story to show the positives and negatives of each change, as her characters are forced to let go of the old to make room for the new. These changes include a divergence from traditional Turkish conditions for marriage, an acceptance of differing world views within families, and a newfound acceptance of psychology as a means for dealing with challenges.

The novel revolves around the lives of Sabiha and Selva, two sisters who are very close. Having been raised by wealthy parents following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, they are schooled at an American school in Istanbul. There the younger sister, Selva, meets and falls in love with a young Jewish man named Rafo. As a muslim woman, marriage to a Jew is unthinkable and grounds for ostracism from family and community. Still, her love for Rafo prevails and she marries him privately. Her father and friends consequently cut them off and they move to Paris to begin a new life. Selva’s marriage to Rafo reflects the modern idea of an individual’s freedom to love that transcends societal expectations. But this shift doesn’t come without a cost. Selva’s disconnection from her family torments her, and she longs for some kind of reconciliation.

Like Selva and Sabiha, Kulin also graduated from a western school, the American College for Girls in Arnavutköy, Istanbul. She began her career there by writing an award-winning short story that was made into a film. She subsequently became heavily involved with theatre and film production, writing screen plays, doing cinematography, and producing. Her writing and theatre work was so successful that she won numerous awards, including the “Best Cinematographer Award” from the Theatre Writers Association, and the “Writer of the Year” award by the İstanbul Communication Faculty. As she became more widely recognized, she undoubtedly came into contact with a broader, more diverse audience.

Old Houses in Ankara City

In her novel, Kulin speaks with authority about the difficulty of accepting differing world views within a traditional Turkish family. Could the author also have experienced some of the estrangement by family members as she sought to build an authentic life for herself? The new need for acceptance of differing world views within the family in the novel comes as a result of culture-mixing, a result of exposure to people of differing beliefs and ethnicities. Perhaps Kulin also experienced this need as her experience broadened. She writes with tenderness about the fragile feelings of family members of both traditional and modern bent, who struggle to reach for each other in a love that transcends personal convictions.

While Sabiha is living in Ankara and Selva in France, they keep in touch through letters. Sabiha suffers emotionally from the separation from her sister. To make things worse, her husband Macit works long hours away from home as a diplomatic employee of the Turkish Ambassador. His work in planning for Turkey’s position in the war is crucial to the welfare of his country, under the political shifts brought on by World War II, but it is not good for his marriage or the emotional well-being of his wife. Macit seeks the help of a psychologist for his wife and daughter, a practice that would have been quite unusual and modern for the time. Sabiha feels some guilt in accepting this solution, but eventually finds benefit in it. This aspect of the story provides another modern shift: the acceptance of psychology and self-determination as a means of dealing with challenges, replacing the traditional ideal of absolute conformity to family expectations.

Later in the story, Rafo, Selva and their young son in France flee to Marseille to avoid Nazi scrutiny. They come into serious danger as the Nazis advance to the south and begin searches for Jews. Sabiha’s husband Macit, and his colleague Tarik who has moved to work in Paris, become involved with helping Selva’s family, at Sabiha’s request. Things really heat up for Turks in France under Nazi occupation, and particularly for the Jews. Urgent action on the part of Tarik and his colleagues at the Turkish Consulate in Paris is needed to help Selva’s family and protect the lives of Turks and Jews of other nationalities. Selva uses her quick wits and skill at teaching Turkish to prepare hundreds of people for a secret train-ride escape out of France, headed for Istanbul. Will she also find the courage to return to Turkey and face her family?

Woman standing at Galata tower in Istanbul, Turkey.

Kulin’s novel is based on actual events that took place in the last century, nearly 100 years ago. But the themes in the novel are still relevant to us today. As technology, politics, and family values continue to change in monumental ways, more individuals around the world are looking to find a balance between personal authenticity and social cohesion. New ideas about marriage, acceptance of differing world views within families, and new ways of confronting challenges are all of the forefront of everyone’s mind. Might Kulin’s thoughtful novel offer us some insights?

Ayse Kulin has written other historical novels, including one called Sevdalinka about the Bosnian War in 1999. Later novels include: Last Train to Istanbul (2002, 2007, 2013), Aylin (1997, 2007), Face to Face (2005, 2008), and Farewell (2008, 2009).

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