When Nymeth at things mean a lot launched the 30s Mini-Challenge I carefully went through my TBR shelves. Surprisingly, in the 2 ½ years worth of reading I have waiting, the only book which fitted was “Stamboul Train” by Graham Green, published in 1932. Meanwhile, I’ve been listening to “Thank You, Jeeves” by P.G. Woodhouse (1934), which I’ll also add to this Challenge.
Stamboul Train starts in Oostend, Belgium with the boarding of the Orient Express, headed to Constantinople. Along its line, it stops in Cologne, Vienna and Subotica (Serbia), a trip across the heart of Europe which not many years afterwards would be impossible to do. The “spirit of the time” is clearly felt throughout the book: the tone is slightly cynical and there’s an undercurrent of political and social class themes. Green also tackles sex and homosexuality in a defiant way, almost like a challenge to “the old generation”. I felt the same open challenge in other 30s novels such as Brideshead Revisited, Cold Comfort Farm and of course in the more openly erotic books of Arthur Miller and Anais Nin.
The story is sold as a thriller, but I saw it more as a quick peek at a group of strangers who share a journey and how this will impact their future. People get in, people get out, people come together and are pulled apart: the young and naïve cabaret dancer has an affair with the Jewish business man, an old socialist hero from Belgrade on his way to start a revolution is blackmailed by a self-centred lesbian journalist, a pulp writer tries to seduce an heiress. All characters with potential, but there was something theatrical about these comings and goings that made me distance myself from them. I also knew almost from the start that Green was going to sacrifice any slightly happy ending to make a point. I don’t always need a happy ending, but here it was as if I was being taught a lesson: see reader, it’s a harsh world with no place for illusions and dreams.
My favourite part of the whole thing was the train atmosphere. Train trips have this out-of-reality quality that make them the perfect setting for a good story. I’m thinking of course about Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, but also Highsmith’s/Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train and even the train scenes in Dr. Jivago and Harry Potter. However, even with this fertile ground, Stamboul Train was a “3” book: it kept me interested while I read it, but I suspect that in 6 months I’ll be left with only a vague feeling or a distant image.