Over 70 years after its publication, a mysterious Turkish novel has taken on a new relevance
Turkish writer Sabahattin Ali’s novel Madonna in a Fur Coat has come to be seen as something of an enigma. Over 70 years old, it was not particularly well-received upon its initial publication in 1943. Back then, the book was only known to those passing the hardcover from handbag to handbag on recommendations from friends. Now, however, the novel is experiencing something of a resurgence; while it is has been translated in a wide variety of languages, it has only recently been translated into English by Maureen Freely. The new-found popularity of Ali’s novel has been the topic of much conversation, particularly amongst Turkish youth. Since 1998, over a million copies have been sold, 750,000 of them in the last three years alone. To put things into perspective, that means that it has outsold even Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel, A Stranger in My Mind.
The reason this novel is currently one of the most spotted accessories around Istanbul’s coffee shops is a mystery in itself – not that it shouldn’t be; it’s only that the novel is an unlikely candidate. It was written by an author more famous for his death than his work. Madonna in a Fur Coat is a novel by a writer of short stories, a love story with scant political content (despite the author having been supposedly murdered for his opinions). At 176 pages, the book reads like an afternoon nap or cup of tea, washing over the reader in dreamy prose and seeing them emerge a little under the spell of Ali’s characters, the heartbreak, and the time the novel spans. Although one could say that the message of the book is overshadowed by its romance, it is nonetheless quietly present, leaving one with a lasting sense of melancholy.
Ali’s story is framed by another story. The narrator – a young and ambitious office worker – befriends Raif Effendi, a quiet and underwhelming old man. In spite of the book’s promising opening sentence, ‘Of all the people I have chanced upon in life, there is no one who has left a greater impression’, the first few pages only give the slightest hint of fascination within the narrator. One glimpses his art and writing, with the knowledge that there is more to the elderly gentleman than what is first perceived. It can be sensed that he is hiding something, even within himself, and as such, is pursued by the narrator with enchantment. As Raif becomes sick, the narrator seeks to spend more time learning about him. After some awkward dialogue at home, the shy interactions between a man who wants to learn and one who wants to hide become apparent. On Raif’s deathbed, the reader is taken on a journey through his notebook, which provide a glimpse of his younger days in Berlin, in a world of cabarets, museums, parks, and streets to explore. Upon arriving there, Raif learned German, made polite conversation with the people living in his hotel, and walked the streets of the city. Through him, the book’s adventure begins.
By chance, Raif found a painting entitled Madonna in a Fur Coat in an art gallery, and became spellbound by it. He frequented the gallery at all waking hours to bask in its presence, and it is here that Ali’s heroine – in the form of Maria Puder, a young artist and singer – makes her appearance. Like the woman in the painting, Maria is confident and exuberant, and balances purity with glamour. She is exactly what Raif is not, and offers nothing but companionship when he only wants to love her and be with her romantically. What stops these polar opposites from amounting to the sum of their differences is the vivid imagery painted by Ali, and the progression of Raif and Maria’s relationship over time. What could be for a moment considered a cliché tale of unrequited love is salvaged by the way the prose reads though Raif’s melancholic voice. The dialogue is never too hurried nor too emotional, similar to the minds of Ali’s characters. The pacing carries the characters around the city with ease, while the imagery allows the reader to escape further into the world they create around themselves and the themes of the novel to emerge from beneath its pages.
In contrast to Ali’s other works, Madonna in a Fur Coat can be considered an anomaly. For one, Ali’s stories are almost always set in Anatolian villages, similar to those of his surrealist contemporary, Sait Faik Abasıyanık. As well, while the prose of Ali’s novel reads like poetry in the shape of a novella, dark realism still runs through the core of the story; and, with the addition of tragic romance, this work stands starkly apart from his short stories, which often highlight the suffering of the poor. Where themes are concerned, the ones that have received the most attention from the novel’s new readers are freedom, unrequited love, power, and, ultimately, fascination. It has been said of the book that it questions gender roles, and many have claimed that its popularity is in part due to the way in which it challenges the male/female binary in conservative Turkish society. With credit to the novel having been written nearly a century ago, its female heroine takes on the role of a man (and vice-versa), and Ali sets the inversion against the backdrop of 1920s Berlin and a world of sparkling cabarets. The setting is liminal: between wars and worlds, a woman comes to life through a painting. Somewhat unusual in her philosophy, Maria pursues her own brand of feminism, explaining to Raif that through experience, she knows every part of her that may become commodified, from her body to her art; and, that knowing this, she chooses to have control over her relationships, including the one between her and Raif, which she insists on keeping platonic. Raif, while accepting these conditions, only aims to learn, love, and understand his own desires.
With these themes in mind, the reason for the novel’s current popularity may begin to make more sense. Ali’s characters challenge what is expected of them, and find that in their new roles and through their platonic relationship, they are able to experience an enlightened state. Perhaps Turkish youth have connected with the characters’ rejection of conservative norms, or have at least challenged in their minds the places in society they are often expected to take. In the novel, Ali’s characters are free to think, discuss, wander and pass through streets cultivated to try their minds. They give new eyes to the galleries, nightclubs, and botanical gardens of Berlin, going against an alternate life with a safety not afforded to many.
Freely has accredited the book’s ‘comeback’ to the spirit of Ali living on in the hearts of Turkey’s protesting youth, saying that he has given them the courage to rebel without losing their sense of the surreal, or forgetting how to love
Ali’s novel often seems like a mirror to his own years spent in Berlin. Its tragedy is amplified when considering Ali’s life in Turkey, especially in relation to the current pandemonium and crackdowns in Turkey following the recent failed coup d’état. Ali, who taught as a professor of German at the Ankara State Conservatory, was imprisoned for sharing poetry that supposedly critiqued the nascent Turkish Republic and its leader, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. It was during his first stretch in prison that he became inspired by the suffering of others to write many of the short stories about Anatolian peasants he would come to be known for, as well as the series of poems expressing his own suffering, Hapishane Şarkısı (Prison Elegy). In the latter, Ali’s powerful use of imagery is of particular note:
I was like an eagle in the sky,
My wings were wounded;
I was like a branch with purple blossoms,
Broken off in springtime.
Ali’s life as a political journalist saw him join the long list of Turkish writers imprisoned for their views. He was imprisoned again on several other occasions, and today, his untimely death – while often overshadowing his work – draws many parallels with the state of modern-day Turkey. Ali was murdered while crossing the western border to Bulgaria in 1948, after falling on hard financial times. Although the responsibility for the deed was later claimed by a smuggler by the name of Ali Ertekin, it has been suggested that he was killed by the state while under torture, especially as his body was only found several months after the announcement of his death.
It is perhaps as an echo and testament to Ali’s life that Madonna in a Fur Coat has now become his most popular and acclaimed work. Beyond the imagery and language and the strained relationship and fierce characterisation of Raif and Maria, a number of issues are raised – of honesty, societal expectations and norms, how fate can force one’s life back into tradition, and censoring one’s voice in the presence of fear. At points in the novel, Raif runs away from any signs of himself showing honesty or true creativity; the Madonna binds him to such an extreme degree that she almost exceeds her believability. Her painting mystifies Raif, and her honesty as Maria becomes all the more enchanting, as it appears to be so unreal, reminding one of the power of bravery through her.
Likewise, the setting of 1920s Berlin draws parallels to the current spirit of Turkey’s largest cities – Istanbul and Ankara – in times of questioning and uncertainty. Berlin, like Istanbul, has always been a tinderbox of fierce passion, and this might also explain some of the book’s popularity. Ali’s daughter, Filiz, has stated that the book represents something unreachable to Turkey’s youth. Likewise, Freely has accredited the book’s ‘comeback’ to the spirit of Ali living on in the hearts of Turkey’s protesting youth, saying that he has given them the courage to rebel without losing their sense of the surreal, or forgetting how to love. Ultimately, one could argue that it is the combination of Ali’s tragic, yet inspiring life story, the book’s thematic parallels to modern-day Turkey, and his prose that has won the hearts of a new generation of readers – both Turkish and foreign – just as it did some 70-odd years ago.