Sunday, February 04, 2007

'Last train to Istanbul'

This book (not available in English on Amazon, though the Turkish version 'Nefes Nefese' is) by the Turkish author Ayse Kulin is set in France and Turkey before and during the second world war. The daughter of a well-to-do Turkish family married a Turkish Jew, much to the disapproval of her family, and they decided to go to France to get away from home. This was a mistake. The family's other daughter is married to a Foreign Office official who is very wrapped up in his work trying to keep the Allies and the Germans off the backs of Turkey - both sides want Turkey to join their war effort. Turkish diplomats in France do their best to rescue Turkish Jews, often retrieving them from their arrest cells and even camps stating that they are Turks first and in secular Turkey there is no discrimination on the grounds of religion. Finally they develop an audacious plan to get groups of Turkish citizens, Jewish or otherwise, out of France.....

It's an interesting book; although it is fiction, it appears to be based on real events - the book opens with a list of consuls who rescued Jewish people in various countries. It offers yet another view point on the holocaust and about how people were spirited out towards safety. The number of people involved in all these rescues, from different parts of the globe, is really very considerable - the Swede Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest (who later disappeared, reportedly to have died in a Russian prison camp), the Japanese consul Sugihara in Lithuania, the Turkish consuls in France, Germany, Budapest, Prague and other places.... if you think that nowadays immigration officials are extremely nitpicky about passports just consider how many forged passports and dodgy visas, for very good reasons, floated around the world at the time. Would the victims of today's genocides, Rwanda, Darfur, have such support, or would they be put into detention camps following their arrival in a safe country, only to be deported back home at the earliest opportunity? Times have certainly changed.

The literary value of the book is not so high - no complicated language; here the story line dominates. At the same time it does not come over all sentimental as some books of the 'overcoming adversity' type easily drift into. It is eminently (and fairly quickly) readable. For me it was also nice to get more descriptions of Istanbul. The book was for sale in all Istanbul bookshops with English language books, so it must be a bit of a bestseller.

There are one or two moments where the facts might not have been fully straight - I am not convinced that the average plodding German Gestapo person would have been familiar with what is a Turkish Jewish name and what isn't. Also at some stage our refugees pick up a newspaper in Germany with news that the Russians have allowed the Czechs and the Poles to train in the Soviet Union. I find it hard to believe that such news would have been available to the German population during the war.


viola power said...

Sounds like an interesting book! I like your blog. I met you in Iceland, I think.

violainvilnius said...

Hi, thanks.

I did not go to the Iceland Viola Congress - at the time I was renovating a flat, and Iceland was soooo expensive. Am going to Adelaide this year!

Anonymous said...

just read this book in English translation purchased while on holiday in Istanbul - a rattling good read and quite moving