Stamboul Train

by Graham Greene

Murder on the Orient Express, hasn’t that already been done? Well it turns out that Stamboul Train was published 2 years earlier than its more famous companion. In fact it was sold in the US as ‘Orient Express’ and the Agatha Christie thriller had to be titled the less interesting ‘Murder on a train’.

The Orient Express still exists in some form as a luxury tourist train; although in the era of these books it was a practical method of getting from A to B. I like the idea of train travel and always get slightly excited by the idea of sleeper trains, something I’ve only experienced in Eastern Europe.

I need to check if there is a movie of this book. It is like it’s written for film, in particular when reading the conversations in the dining car after Vienna. It reminds me of Before Sunrise, both on the train itself, before Jesse and Celine meet and also in the café before they ‘phone’ their friends.

I haven’t made it to the Balkans or Turkey yet. When I went to Vienna my plan was to visit so many places, basically anywhere I could get to for a weekend. Bratislava, Budapest I managed. Krakow had to wait for another trip. Belgrade, Zagreb, Ljubljana I haven’t been to yet.

There is something about a story taking place on a train journey. I think there’s also in general something romantic about long distance train journeys. So many stories that can take place there don’t take place on other modes of transport. Plane journeys are usually too short and despite statistics people are still more nervous about flying than they would be getting on a train. Also, there’s not really much opportunity to wander about and meet other passengers, so unless you’re lucky with the stranger beside you… Then you generally drive with people you know (ok, there is hitchhiking, that is a whole ‘nother genre). Buses are just…no…too cramped, can’t do long journeys on them, though I guess they’re not so bad in South America, but still not as conducive to meeting people.

On a train (not a commuter one, though I wonder if anything ever comes of those ‘brief encounters’ sections in the metro), you board,  make yourself at home for whatever distance you are travelling and make the most of it. The landscape whizzes by and you have a chance to muse, philosophise or sleep. The longest train journey I took was that Kalinkavichy to Simferopol trip I made back in 2004. I’ve travelled further by train, as far as Kazan, but while I’ve always wanted to do the Trans-Siberian, I much prefer the idea of taking it in stages, stopping off and discovering a new place. Then again, at this stage I am not sure when I would next have the time to do that. When I was in Minsk I had my Lonely Planet guidebook for Russia and had marked all the places I was going to stop along the way. Whatever about the whole train thing, I really do want to go to the Altai region. A facebook friend went there last year and her photos reminded me how much I want to go there. On my journey back from Kazan to Moscow I had run out of books to read, for once my fellow passengers didn’t want to know me and I kept rereading excerpts from the LP. But it was frustrating, because I was travelling west, away from all of those places. There was almost a moment, when I was in Kazan, when I thought, hey, this is easy, I could just keep hopping on trains and go further east. But then again, Kazan was also the place, pre payday when the ATM refused to spit out 100 roubles (about €2) due to insufficient funds.

Midway through my year in Minsk I realised the major problem. What was I going to do when I got to the other side of Vladivostock, or down to Beijing, how was I going to get back? I wouldn’t have been able to afford a flight and I was hardly going to turn around and do the whole thing again, but all in one go? I tried to join the dots; maybe I could take a train to some point where I could get a cheap flight to Australia and then work there until I could afford to fly back. I went through a phase last year of watching all the Banged up Abroad episodes I could find on YouTube. I was at a friend’s house one day and saw the episode about the two guys kidnapped while trying to cross from Panama to Colombia and I was hooked. (So many Colombia kidnap episodes, I’m glad I didn’t watch the Ciudad Perdida episode before we went! Oh and I must make an obligatory reference to the recent Peru 2 case being exactly like the episode of the two Americans). Some of the episodes show people who talk about not being able to afford a flight home and you shout at the screen ‘Seriously, call your folks, it’s gonna work out a lot cheaper for them in the long run!’ but I suppose there is an unwritten rule that calling your parents to fund your flight home is a sign of failure.

At the end of my time in Vienna I had to do it. I couldn’t pay my rent and there was no sign of getting any cash from the crappy telemarketing job I had. Anyway, my Australian partner in crime had recently made her way to Ireland and was planning on finally going home after two years travelling. But she emailed me to say that first she was going to stop off at her parents’ place in Split and did I want to come join her for a week or so. I had missed out on a trip there with my Erasmus buddies two years before (doing the sensible thing, working until the end of the summer, and then doing the insensible thing of going into hiding for a good part of my final year) and I was really tempted. It was with a heavy heart that I replied saying I didn’t have the money to go and if I got a proper job then I wouldn’t have the time. I mentioned this quite innocently to my parents on a call home. The next day they rang back offering to fund my trip to Croatia if I would just come home. I weighed up the pros and cons and emailed Gabriella to tell her I’d be happy to join her. Alas, she replied a week later from Istanbul, saying she’d changed her mind when she received my original email. I thought some more, then arranged to take an overnight train to Milan and fly home from there.               

I’ve gone on longer then I intended. But I suppose being bailed out by my parents that time did leave me with the sense that I didn’t want to do it again. As one of the eldest in my family I was supposed to be more responsible, the one bailing out my younger brothers and sisters.

I haven’t made it to the Balkans or Turkey yet.

Coral Musker does not have family to bail her out. She is escaping from a ghastly life of landlords, stagedoors, greasy agents and general London chorus girl murkiness. She has been offered a job in a dancing troupe in Istanbul. This seems like a bit of a strange idea now, but maybe it’s not much different to somebody nowadays going to sing at some Med resort, or on a cruise ship. She is making the trip in the lowest class. Apparently Graham Greene wrote this book purely to make money and since money was not something he had much of at the time of researching he was not able to afford the full trip. So some of the descriptions were taken from other travel literature. Maybe I could do that if I wanted to set a novel on the Trans-Siberian, but somehow I think I’d force myself to do the research. I could go platskartny (3rd class), no problem, you still get a bunk.

I’ve checked and there is in fact a movie, though IMDB does not have a single review, which leads me to believe it is not one worth seeing. Or maybe it’s anti-Semitic in a way that was normal at the time but wouldn’t be accepted post WW2? I don’t know, I don’t think I’ll be seeking it out. There is a large cast of characters, some making the full journey, some embarking and disembarking along the way. Coral is probably the character we see most of and the one I felt the most affinity with – the innocent abroad. She faints and is rescued by the Jewish Myatt. Could this be a predecessor of Before Sunrise?

Oh, if only it were that simple. It is unfortunate that Myatt had to be Jewish and it had to be mentioned over and over again, because, while he is not unsympathetic, all of his faults seem to be the stereotypical Jewish ones, mainly revolving around money. It seems like the character could have had all of these issues without having to be Jewish. Or if he had to be Jewish to show the abuse and all of the throwaway comments then he could have been a little less stereotypically obsessed with money. He is not a knight in shining armour, he does not seem to be a very feeling person, but not bad either. And yet, any mention of money, or any reference to how calculating he is, or the importance of business, or anything which fits the old stereotypical Jew, you just have alarm bells going in your head saying ‘I’m not comfortable reading this!’.

But then at the same time it is interesting to read as it is a book of its time. Nowadays we associate anti-Semitism and especially of that era (the book having been published in 1932) with Germany, but obviously it was much more widespread. I thought in the earlier part of the book that there was going to be more relevance to Myatt being a Jew, while travelling on a train crossing a Germany which is soon going to be run by Hitler, but while there are many comments from different people, there is no specific reference to the situation in Germany. I suppose that it is easy to say this in hindsight, but at the time people outside of Germany would not have had much of an idea of what was happening. I remember reading a ‘book of knowledge’ a few years ago, another book rescued from my grandparents’ house. It was published in the 1930s and under the section on Germany they mentioned Hitler, who had recently come to power. It is so strange nowadays to read about Hitler being referred to as a politician, rather than a dictator or a monster.   

There are quite a few other characters, some more important than others. Mabel Warren is an overbearing, alcoholic lesbian journalist who is bidding farewell to her ‘paid companion’ Janet Purdoe. She suspects correctly that Janet won’t be returning, so she is on the lookout for a replacement and Coral fits the mould. Is this what being a paid companion meant all these years and I’ve just missed it? Wasn’t the second Mrs DeWinter also a paid companion before she got married? Or was it not just a respectable position for young unmarried girls and maybe some women took advantage of it?

Then there’s Dr Czinner, the communist returning to Belgrade after 5 years in exile, hoping to lead a revolt. We read a lot of his thoughts, including how he lost his faith and is jealous of the younger generation for not having been brought up in any faith and not having to have any crisis. Which seems like something strange to read now, as I think a lot of people nowadays feel like they are having this crisis for the first time. He does feel the need to confess though, but the clergyman he encounters prefers to talk about cricket. Poor Coral, she gets tied up in his mess and while the story of her and Myatt is very fragile, it does seem like she might have been happy for, oh, at least a few weeks, if things had gone her way. She just seems to be one of those people who never has any luck.

Overall I found it an entertaining read, if not quite what I was expecting. The cover promises murder and there is murder, but it doesn’t happen on the train itself, sorry to disappoint, and it’s not really all that important to the plot in the end.

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