If in doubt about what to read, I’m finding nowadays that it’s often a good bet to head to ‘Greene-land’! I’ve been reading Greene since my teens – “Our Man in Havana” and “Brighton Rock” mainly – but it’s only recently that I’ve been exploring his work further. A number of the books I’ve read have been those that Greene labelled his ‘entertainments’, although I’d continue to argue that there’s a lot more depth in his lighter works than in any number of serious ones by other authors! However, on to “Stamboul Train”, the first of his so-called entertainments, apparently written deliberately for money in the hope a film would be made – which it was. The book was published in 1932 and is called “Orient Express” in the USA (which confused me a bit at first when I was looking into Greene titles!)

!st Edition cover

!st Edition cover

The action here takes place on or around an Orient express travelling from Ostend to Istanbul. As the various passengers embark from the boat train, we meet the various individuals who will take part in the tale: Carleton Myatt, a businessman on a trip to deal with a problem in his firm; Coral Musker, a rather fragile showgirl off to Istanbul for a job; the mysterious Dr. John, who appears superficially to be English, but is obviously not what he seems; Q.C. Savory, a Cockney novelist. At each stop, which corresponds with a section of the book, new characters join the train: Mabel Warren, a journalist; her partner Janet Pardoe, who is losing interest in Warren; Josef Grunlich, a thief and a murderer. Then there is a variety of supporting players, from a cricket-loving vicar to a prejudiced couple.

As the book progresses and the train travels on, we find out more about the various passengers. Coral is impoverished and not in the best of health – she faints at one point and the doctor recommends rest for her, which is not practical for a working girl. Myatt is Jewish, a fact that leaves him vulnerable to a number of slurs from fellow travellers, officials etc along the line. He is rich enough to pay to compensate for this, but nevertheless is aware of the attitude of others towards him. And Dr. John is in fact Dr. Czinner, a socialist leader in exile, travelling back to Belgrade to lead an uprising.

However, things soon go wrong all round. Myatt takes pity on Coral and as if to counteract the stereotypes about him, gives her his coat and lets her sleep in his berth. She is grateful, a tenderness grows up between them and they spend the night together. However, Coral gets off the train at Subotica and is caught up in Dr. Czinner’s issues which ends up with arrest, missing the train, more illness and somebody’s death.

“The world was chaotic; when the poor were starved and the rich were not happier for it; when the thief might be punished or rewarded with titles; when wheat was burned in Canada and coffee in Brazil, and the poor in his own country had no money for bread and froze to death in unheated rooms; the world was out of joint and he had done his best to set it right, but that was over.”

Czinner finds out that the socialist uprising went ahead early, before he could reach Belgrade, and it failed – he has lost many colleagues and decides to continue on to Belgrade anyway, in case he is able to be tried and at least state his case before the world. He has lived his life in exile almost as a ghost of his former self, and he cannot bear to go back to that exile. Unfortunately, Mabel Warren has recognised him, and although she has no power to force him to give her a story (as the uprising has failed) she follows him in an attempt to get a scoop.

Lovely vintage Pan (alas, not mine!)

Lovely vintage Pan (alas, not mine!)

It is at Subotica that things fall apart. Dr Czinner is arrested; Coral also as he manages to incriminate her; and Grunlich as he has a gun. Things spiral out of control with escape attempts, different characters going off in different directions and unexpected liaisons developing. The train finally reaches Istanbul, and the remaining passengers go off to try to sort out their altered lives.

Let’s face it, this is not merely an ‘entertainment’. Yes, it’s an extremely enjoyable read, as you would expect from a Greene book, but there is much more to it. The novel features such a wide range of characters with varied viewpoints, and is a complex and satisfying thriller. I got really bound up in the plot and the storyline, hoping that certain characters would survive, get the outcome they wanted, or get caught. There were many twists and turns, which kept me on my toes!

But there was of course another level, that of the issues of the time. The book was set in the early 1930s, a decade of turmoil in Europe. Post-WW1 and post-Russian Revolution there were many people wishing for change, and Greene’s portrait of Czinner and the revolutionary movement seems sympathetic. And then there is Carleton Myatt.

Accusations of racism have been levelled at Greene, and in particular I believe at Myatt. He is Jewish, and this is stated from the very start. However, I can’t really perceive any active racism in Greene’s portrayal. Yes, he’s something of a stereotype, but no more than any of the other characters in the book (the showgirl, the ageing lesbian, the revolutionary, the burglar). And in many areas, in the way he presents the racism that Myatt encounters and the hideousness of the characters who discriminate against Myatt, he makes it clear where his support lies. He gives Myatt a wonderful paragraph where he reflects on the hardships and the privations his race have suffered in the past that might have made them as they are (picked up by Christopher Hitchens in his introduction) and this really is a sympathetic response to the plight of a Jewish person in an increasingly hostile Europe. Greene also neatly plays with our perceptions as he has Myatt responding to Coral’s parsimonious behaviour by demanding to know if she is Scotch! (And as a Scot who’s dealt with the meanness stereotype over the years, I wasn’t offended!)

Oddly enough, while I was reflecting on the book, I found myself returning to Greene’s “Ministry of Fear”, which I read recently. The protagonist of this book suffered from excessive pity, and I sensed a lot of compassion from Greene in this book. He seems to empathise with his characters and their viewpoints, allowing Czinner in particular to state his case for the poor of the world. I have no idea of Green’s politics, but letting the doctor have his long, philosophical thoughts is much more effective than any polemic. His presentation of the divide between the high officials at Subotica and the lowly guards on the ground is very telling and although Greene holds back from telling us what to think, he shows us the conditions and lets us make up our own minds.

“The nearest he could attain to hate of these muddled men was envy; he would not hate when he remembered details no newspaper correspondent thought it worth while to give, that the man who, after firing his last shot, was bayoneted outside the sorting-room had been left-handed and a lover of Delius’s music, the melancholy music of a man without faith in anything but death. And that another, who had leapt from the third-floor window of the telephone exchange, had a wife scarred and blinded in a factory accident, whom he loved and to whom he was sadly and unwillingly faithless.”

This was a wonderfully involving and very thought-provoking novel. The more I read of Greene, the more I appreciate his work and his skill as a novelist. “Stamboul Train” is a great read, especially if you want a thriller with a bit more depth. I shall certainly keep visiting Greene-Land on a regular basis!