The Stamboul Train – Graham Greene
This is one of the few Graham Greene novels that I had not read before and it seemed the appropriate time to discover it having read Bethany Hughes’ history of Istanbul. The novel, published in 1932, is the first to which Greene attached the label of an entertainment. American readers might know it better as the Orient Express, which was also the name of the film based on it which was released in 1934. I think it is fair to say that it is one of Greene’s lesser works but, nonetheless, is an action-packed and rewarding read.
Long, international train journeys are a bit of a literary cliché these days but it allows the author to assemble a motley crew of characters who, because of the length of their time together in an enclosed space, have time to connect and interact and, as Greene uses to advantage, the stops along the way allow him to introduce new characters and as the train wends its way through the heartland of Europe to its ultimate destination, Istanbul, each new passenger increases the sense of malevolence and danger.
Three very disparate characters start the journey – Dr Richard Czinner whose alias is an English schoolteacher but who is really an exiled communist leader returning to Belgrade to lead a revolution, Carleton Myer, a trader in currants who is travelling to Turkey to seal a business deal, and Carol Musker, a dancer who is going to take up a job as a dancer in Istanbul. Their fates and stories are soon intertwined. Myer feels sorry for Musker who becomes ill during the journey and falls for her charms. Czinner is recognised by a lesbian journalist, Mabel Warren who joins the train at Brussels with her beau, Janet Pardoe. The tension is cranked up when Josef Grunlich, a thief who has botched a raid and committed murder, joins the train at Vienna.
The revolution is botched and takes place before Czinner arrives, leading him to question his purpose in life. Border guards stop the train and arrest Czinner, Grunlich and Musker. The pace of the book hots up with a Kafkaesque trial, escapes, shootings and car chases. I will not spoil the denouement other than to say that Musker’s ultimate fate is never quite revealed and that Pardoe turns out to be the niece of the man Myer is trying to do business with.
Unusually for a Greene novel the heavy hand of Catholicism is absent. Nonetheless the main protagonists engage in periods of soul-searching, trying to reconcile what has happened and their role in the world. The principal them is that of fidelity, to yourself and to others and how you will be remembered and want to be remembered after you have gone. Heavy stuff but it doesn’t really obtrude because Greene is a master story-teller and gets the balance right.
The bigger issues for modern readers are whether Greene is homophobic in his unflattering portrayal of Warren and anti-semitic in the way he writes about Myer. For those who are attuned to spotting any deviation from political correctness, the answer is probably yes. That said, he was a creature of his time. Warren is a fabulously rich, louche character who just happens to be gay but her sexual orientation is probably used to emphasise what a grotesque person she is. As to anti-Semitism, I’m not sure. Most of the stereotypical characteristics of Jews appear in his make-up – shrewd businessman, love of money, monetising everything – but he is kind, caring, considerate – loving, even. Every reader has to make their mind up but it would be a sad day if modern sensibilities got in the way of reading good literature.
And as for sensitivity, J B Priestley took umbrage of Greene’s portrayal of popular Cockney novelist, Q C Savory, thinking it was a bit near the knuckle and Greene, fearing a libel case, had to tone the character down.