It's the year 1943. World War II is on. No country, and its people, whether neutral or otherwise, are spared. The lives of Jews are in danger. They are being picked up by the Gestapo - from their homes, workplaces, and streets - and their fate after that is unknown. Troubled times.
Last Train to Istanbul unfolds in these turbulent times, and alternates between Turkey and Paris. We get a glimpse of the repercussions of war through the lives of Selva and Rafael. Turkish nationals, lovebirds Selva and Rafael flee their homes due to the strong opposition from their families for their marriage, Selva being a Muslim while Rafael, a Jew. Having made Marseilles their home, they live in the fond hope of leading a comfortable life in their adopted country, far, far away from all the social harassment their union has invited on them in their home country. But, deep down, they miss their home, their people, their families.
Likewise, their families too miss them. Especially Selva's sister Sabiha, who's also dealing with demons of her own. Missing her sister on the one hand, while coming to terms with her fluctuating feelings for her husband Macit, a Turkish Foreign Ministry official, whose wartime busy schedule keeps him away from home for extended hours. Well! Life proceeds thus. Till the day Nazis invade France, whose only mission is to round-up Jews, irrespective of their nationalities, and deport them to ghettos. Moving around in the town becomes a nightmare for the couple, owing to Rafael's identity as a Jew. "Rafo (Rafael), like all the other Jews, checked carefully before going out. Venturing out of doors while the SS were patrolling was asking for trouble."
Finally, the couple's worst fears come true. Rafael is picked up by the Gestapo and taken to an undisclosed location. It is at this juncture that Macit's influential position in the Foreign Ministry comes to aid. His diplomatic contacts in Marseilles strive for Rafael's release, and succeed, much to Selva's relief.
Sensing the threat to their countrymen's lives, the Turkish Consulate decides to have a special train transport Turkish Jews to Istanbul. In a humane gesture, they prepare forged paper for non-Turkish Jews too, to enable them to board the train. The train to safety. The train to freedom. The last train to Istanbul. This gesture by the Turkish Consulate takes us back in time to 1492, when Beyazid II, the eighth Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, had invited 2,50,000 Jews expelled from Spain to come to his country.
With assistance from the underground resistance, the plan does materialise, and the train does leave the station, to traverse a war-torn continent, crossing enemy lines all along the way. Selva and Rafael too are on this train. They can't wait to get back home. To their families. To the realisation that nothing under the Sun - not war, not religious identity, not hatred - is strong enough to threaten familial bonds. But, will this train make it safely home? Well, that is for you to find out...
This novel by Ayse Kulin charts the historical facts relating to World War II. As we thumb through the pages, we are introduced to the particulars and events leading up to Turkey's involvement in the evacuation of Jews from Paris to Istanbul in 1943. Though filled with extreme historical details, it turns out to be an interesting page-turner owing to the weaving in of myriad stories that underline the strength of love and familial bonds. Proof enough of the author's flair for writing. Intense research that must have gone into the writing of the book flashes at every point, making the Last Train... intensely engaging. The fact that the book is partially based on the stories told to the author by Turkish diplomats adds to the allure of the book, lending it a realistic feel.
The narrative begins slowly, and even as we are introduced to the various characters that people the book, it quickly picks up steam. We find ourselves drawn into the politics of war and flipping the pages at a frenetic pace. Especially towards the end, when the dramatic rescue operation is on. The book evokes several emotions, all at once - shock, awe, sadness, and disbelief.
The author has lent all her characters, especially Selva and Sabiha, such great charm that their strength of character lingers in our minds long after we have closed the book. So real, so relatable, each with their eccentricities and ordinariness. With its action, mystery, drama, romance, and above all, politics, the book can very well make it to the big screen. There's one complaint though - the editing could have been a lot better.