ORHAN Pamuk and Elif afak are the most popular Turkish writers among international readers, but surprisingly their works are considered controversial by quite a few Turkish people who prefer other contemporary and classic writers. Sabahattin Ali is one such classic writer who was also an ardent socialist, poet, teacher and journalist. He was arrested more than once and then murdered in 1948 under murky circumstances. As compared to his other books, the politics in Madonna in a Fur Coat, translated for the first time into English this year, is rather muted. Leading the bestseller lists in Turkey for the last three years, Madonna in a Fur Coat is a largely ignored classic rediscovered by the current generation. For many it is surprising that a simple tragedy has become so popular amongst the Turkish youth, but once you read the book, you fall for its atmospheric quality and flawed but perfectly drawn characters.
On the surface, it is a heart-wrenching story of a Turkish man who falls in love with a German girl in Berlin. However, if you look beyond the love story you realise that for Ali, observing human nature and our surroundings with keen attention is of utmost importance. When we first meet Raif he is living in a shabby neighbourhood in Ankara where he works in a dingy office as a translator of German. He is mocked by both his superiors and juniors alike. When the narrator meets Raif for the first time his impression is that of a “tireless blank of a man”. But one day he happens to see a drawing that Raif made of their boss and is forced to change his opinion: “[H]ow could a man so intimately acquainted with his surroundings, and so clear and sharp in his observations of others, ever know anger or excitement?”.
Two people who don’t quite fit the mould of their society and time find a kindred spirit in each other
Over time the narrator becomes good friends with Raif who hands him his personal journal on his sickbed. The rest of the book comprises journal entries of Raif from 10 years ago. The story-within-a-story narrative method is simple and predictable and yet it is hard to put the book down because of the lyrical and heart-warming prose.
The young Raif is a 24-year-old who loves reading stories and prefers dreams to the real world — qualities derided by his father who tells him he should have been born a girl. His father sends him to the post-WWI Berlin to work at German soap factories to learn how they make scented soaps. Raif doesn’t learn much about soap-making, but quickly picks up the German language and develops a love for aimlessly strolling around Berlin. On one such excursion he ends up in an art gallery where he finds a painting of a woman titled ‘Madonna in a Fur Coat,’ which casts a spell on him because of its unsettling charm: the woman in the painting wears “a strange, formidable, haughty and almost wild expression”, such that he has never seen before. The painting is a self-portrait; the name of the artist is Maria Puder who sings in a nightclub and becomes interested in the strange man who keeps coming to the gallery to stare at her painting for hours.
Ali doesn’t go for deep philosophising; instead, his strength lies in his uncanny ability to describe human feelings in a way that is quite relatable and yet manages to steer clear of sloppy melodrama. For instance, before the narrator finds a job in the same company as Raif, he is unemployed for a while and thus has a chance to see how people react to the misfortune that befalls others: “When misfortune visits those who once walked alongside us, we do tend to feel relief, almost as if we believe we have ourselves been spared, and as we come to convince ourselves that they are suffering in our stead, we feel for these wretched creatures. We feel merciful.” Also, the narrator’s remarks on human nature while he is trying to understand Raif are among the highlights of this rather slim book: “Even the most wretched and simple-minded man could be a surprise, even a fool could have a soul whose torments were a constant source of amazement.”
“Skirting the southern side of the Tiergarten, I took my time, finally arriving at a canal. I could see Maria Puder’s house from the bridge. It had only just gone three. The sun was shimmering on the windowpanes: I couldn’t make out anyone behind them. So I leaned against the railing on the bridge and looked down at the still waters. Soon those same waters were quivering in a haze of raindrops. In the far distance, a barge was unloading fruit and vegetables, while a row of handcarts waited on the pier. Leaves fell from the trees that lined the canal, drawing spirals through the air. So much beauty in this dark and dreary scene! Oh, to breathe in this moist air! This was how life should be lived: attuned to nature, its every flutter and sway, while time moves inexorably forward. Rejoicing in every moment, finding a lifetime in each and every one, in the knowledge that these moments were revealing themselves to me as to no other. Never forgetting that there existed another with whom I could share all my thoughts. I just had to wait... What could be more uplifting than this? Soon we would be wandering down these wet roads together. Finding a dark and quiet place to sit down. Locking eyes. I had so much to tell her — things I had never even admitted to myself. Thoughts that had arrived only to flit away a moment later, to make room for the next. I would take her hands in mine and rub them warm. I would, with just one word, be at one with her.”— Excerpt from the book
Ali’s representation of gender roles is extraordinarily radical if you take into account the fact that Madonna in a Fur Coat was written a few years before WWII. Raif, the protagonist, is a gentle soul with the tender sensibilities traditionally associated with women; he never tries to dominate women or treat them as a less intelligent gender. Maria is a woman with strong opinions and quick mood swings. On their first meeting she tells him that the thing she hates most is women having to be passive in all of their socal roles. She believes they can form the perfect platonic friendship because she is like a man in many ways and Raif is “so much like a child, or rather a woman”. But with time, this friendship turns into a love affair that you know is doomed to end terribly. Nevetheless, you want to keep reading because of Ali’s poignant prose.
In brief, Madonna in a Fur Coat is about love, passion and loss, but above all it is concerned with the greatest question of them all: what are the defining moments of life that determine our future?
The reviewer is an Ankara-based freelance writer and critic.
Madonna in a Fur Coat
By Sabahattin Ali
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 11th, 2016