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Of war and love

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Of war and love

Last Train to Istanbul

Author-  Ayse Kulin

Publisher- Amazon Crossing, Rs 399

The novel is a haunting representation of what the Jews went through, and manages to talk about love in the backdrop of the Second World War, writes SHWETA DUSEJA

Fine art and literature have the power to capture and captivate human minds. Sartre, the father of modern philosophy, rightly envisions the role of a writer in society and calls for “commitment literature” wherein he discusses the responsibility of an author towards the society. The writer needs to be careful with the form and content of literature as it will show the readers a world they are familiar with in a more observant, more humane light. By this, in no way do I mean that all literature should be didactic or art for art sake shouldn’t exist.

Ayse Kulin, a renowned Turkish writer, dons the mantle of a “committed” writer to take a plunge into the human psyche to explore both the humanity and brutality of the human race. Her Last Train To Istanbul (2002), written originally in Turkish and translated in English by John W Baker in 2006, is a historical novel which depicts the atrocities inflicted on the Jews across Europe by Nazis and Turkey’s role in saving as many Jews as they could. It is a narrative of loss and hope simultaneously. It is based on real life accounts narrated over several conversations in person as well as over phone by the Turkish diplomats who were involved in saving the Jews particularly the ones in France. The writer also spoke to the members of the underground French Resistance cell who had a major hand in saving the Jews from Germans in France.

The novel is set in the times of World War II and focuses on German occupation of France, persecution of Jews by Nazis across Europe and the neutral stance of Turkey during the war. The writer specifically concentrates on the role of Turkish government in protecting the Jews of Turkish as well as non-Turkish nationalities living in France at the time of German occupation of France.

What is most fascinating about this novel is the author’s successful attempt at knitting the narratives of war with those of love. The central characters of the novel, Selva and Rafael fall in love with each other. Selva is a Turkish Muslim girl whereas Rafael is a Turkish Jew boy. They wish to marry each other but face strong opposition from their respective families because of their different religious faiths. They decide to get married against all odds and leave their country (Turkey) to live in Paris.


That is where the problems begin. They start living in the occupied France and have to flee again (first from their family and their country to escape any bitter confrontation with their families; then to escape Germans to save their lives). They head to Marseilles in the South of France which wasn’t occupied by the Germans then. But, the anti-semitic attitude travels there too and the two start living in fear of their lives. Selva starts to be extremely cautious and sits on the stool next to the window most of the times, to keep an eye on the Gestapo who could show up anytime and rob the Jews of their dignity, their lives. It is through Selva’s eyes, we see several episodes of violence against the Jews during the world war.

Along with Selva, Tarik who is a young Turkish government official, Ferit who is an important member of the underground French Resistance take up the responsibility of transporting the Jews in France (Turkish as well as non-Turkish) to Turkey in the “last train” mentioned in the title of the novel. All three of them are brave, sensitive, empathetic and intelligent. This novel, then, is not just a story of the plight of Jews during the war but it narrates stories of several characters. Kulin is effectual in drawing each of these characters with such finesse that they stay with us long after reading the novel. Even the characters who appear for a short while leave their mark.

Selva’s is a strong character who firmly believes in liberal ideas and there is no disjunction between her thoughts and actions. The writer lays bare for her readers the price one has to pay for being a bold, liberal and assertive woman in a conservative society. Her father is instrumental in educating his daughters to empower them. He wishes to unveil for them an alternative reality through education and bring them out of their closeted world. However, he never envisions, even in his dreams, his favourite daughter, Selva would become so enamoured by the ideals she imbibes through education that she would do anything to bring parity between her belief system and her actions. As a result, he disowns her which emphasises the fact that her father could not come to terms with the strength of his daughter’s personality. It becomes too overpowering for him. He believes, women should be educated but obedient, liberal but within certain acceptable limits. Kulin through the character of Selva’s father hints at the willingness of the society to change their approach towards women. But, the journey from theory to practice is a long struggle and there is hope for such an end.

Overall, the novel presents a picture of the sorry state of the Jews at the time of war. Kulin, through fiction, has been able to present a personal history of the holocaust. She delves into the psyche of the victims and those around them with perfection. Their sufferings torment the readers because many of these characters have been individualised. What we read in schools comes alive with characters we know and can relate to. We, as readers, become the participants in the novel who wish to help the victims to escape their horrifying reality.

The reviewer is an Assistant Professor at the University of Delhi




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