INTERVIEW: Maureen Freely on Sabahattin Ali and ‘Madonna in a Fur Coat’

INTERVIEW: Maureen Freely on Sabahattin Ali and ‘Madonna in a Fur Coat’

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Maureen Freely on Sabahattin Ali and ‘Madonna in a Fur Coat’ Sabahattin Ali’s final novel, “Madonna in a Fur Coat” (1943) (reviewed in HDN here) has only recently become a national bestseller in Turkey. Selling a quarter of a million copies for each of the past three years, the book – which describes the enigmatic love affair of a provincial Turkish man in Weimar Berlin – has clearly struck a chord with a new generation of Turkish readers. A 70-year-old novel by a long-dead author has become one of the most surprising publishing phenomena of recent years.

Recently published as a Penguin Classic, the book is now finally reaching English readers. Maureen Freely spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News about her translation of “Madonna in a Fur Coat” and the tragic life of its author Sabahattin Ali.

INTERVIEW: Maureen Freely on Sabahattin Ali and ‘Madonna in a Fur Coat’“Madonna in a Fur Coat” has become a kind of phenomenon 70 years after it was first published. What’s behind this?

You tell me. We can only guess. The book touches people, particularly young people. Neither the central character Raif Bey nor Maria fit into gender stereotypes. I think that's probably one of the main reasons why a new generation of readers really responds to the book. If it were set in the present I don't think it would be as powerful for them. It takes place in a lost and forgotten age but fully explores a problem that is central to their lives and all our lives. 

The book describes two people and the friendship and love between them - a man who's very soft and "feminine" and a woman who rejects stereotypes of femininity. Also, it is my idea that the book is about the tragedy of family and societal obligations, and the lack of courage to carry on a relationship beyond a secret or private interlude. The demands of family and society are too readily accepted, and therein lies the loss. I think probably a lot of readers in Turkey fear this in their own future and respond to it. 

The book is also very beautifully written, almost perfectly constructed as a story within a story. The language is really lovely. It feels intimate, conversational. But if you look more closely it's very carefully constructed. There's a lot of art in the way he creates that natural confiding voice. 

Sabahattin Ali’s life story is fascinating. He was a dedicated socialist and politics saturates much of his work. But this novel is quite apolitical, at least on the surface.

The things that stay with me are the portraits that the narrator paints of early republican Ankara: The young city being built up, with outlying neighborhoods that haven't quite been constructed yet. Both Raif Bey and the narrator are totally miserable in this kind of philistine city. When Raif Bey takes his story into the past, to Berlin of the inter-war period, there's a fascinating account of life at the pension where he stayed, which has all the detritus of the First World War: Widows and former colonialists all counting the days until a strongman can come and take Germany in hand. There's also a warmth that the Germans at the pension feel toward Turkey, as its ally during the war.

The novel’s portrayal of the art world is very deft. It describes the youth of Berlin - emaciated, still carrying all the scars of the war and drinking themselves into oblivion. Overall, the book is so much a portrait of a city and a particular time. 

I think the main thing that might have caused Sabahattin Ali problems - both with his circle of writer friends and with the general public - is that he was not in this book "writing for the struggle." He was doing something else. In this way it reminds me of James Baldwin's "Giovanni's Room," written at a time when Baldwin was becoming more and more central in the Civil Rights Movement. In that novel he wrote a love story that takes place in France. He refused to hand his art over entirely to "the struggle," with the kind of characters that might be preferred. 

I think that's one reason why today you still hear people say "Madonna in a Fur Coat" is actually a "schoolgirls' book," and Sabahattin Ali’s most important work lies elsewhere. When the book came out in Turkey in newspaper installments, it wasn't well received. He was subjected to hate campaigns, in a manner that we're still familiar with. He was caught between two audiences that weren't particularly open to what he was trying to do.

He was also a satirist and for several years he edited the weekly magazine “Markopaşa” with legendary Turkish satirist Aziz Nesin. Editions of that magazine from the time are still quite funny today.

He had a very close circle of friends who I'm sure kept each other going with humor in the same way that we see today. The dissident writers and journalists and activists today know where they learned the art. They learned from Sabahattin Ali, Nazım Hikmet, Orhan Kemal, Kemal Tahir, and so on. It's a sad thing that a country has to have a tradition like this, but I think of all these writers as heroic and keeping the flame. Often that means keeping things very light. Of course today satire is again a very dangerous thing. Dictators don't like being laughed at.

But it’s fair to say that “Madonna in a Fur Coat” is not really full of laughs. As a serious, somber novel it contrasts with some of his satirical work.

I quite like that. One of the worst things is to require oneself or others to be light or funny all the time. Anyway, humor is often much darker than tragedy. It sits all too comfortably within a tragic or heroic view of life - refusing to give up or give in, which is what Sabahattin Ali and Aziz Nesin did, and what those following in their footsteps continue to do.

Sabahattin Ali was firmly to the left of Turkey’s single-party government and he was repeatedly prosecuted throughout his life. He was even jailed in the early 1930s for writing a poem criticizing Atatürk. Fearing renewed threat of prison, he decided to flee Turkey in 1948. Ankara would not issue him with a passport so he employed a smuggler to get him over the border to Bulgaria. But the smuggler killed him while on the crossing. There is a lot of speculation about whether the smuggler was in the pay of the Turkish intelligence services. Do you have any light to shed on this?

If only. It's one of those typical half-elucidated intrigues that we grow all too familiar with if we have Turkey in our hearts. What stays with me is that this poor man, this writer who had to make a living from the Turkish state because he was a teacher, was forced to try to escape in that way. He was simply living by his ideals and practicing his art. He was a gentle soul who loved books; as I understand it, he was reading at the time when his killer hit him on the head with a shovel. 

Why would any nation push one of its best writers into that desperate situation? That's the question I ask: Not who did it, but why do these things happen? And why are they continuing to happen? Why are there hate campaigns? Just imagine that this killer was not in the pay of the authorities. Just imagine that he was doing this because he thought he was killing a traitor. What does that say? I'm aware that this story has echoes in many other places at different times, but it fills me with despair. It also fills me with admiration. I'm glad the words and the stories survive. And I'm glad that the stories are not just about political struggle.
I hope I don't sound too angry, but I am haunted by Sabahattin Ali’s end and what it says about us. After he died, his daughter was advised by her own mother to not let anyone know who her father was because it was too dangerous. We all know the political story around him. But today he's being remembered mostly for this story, about two people who tried to honor their principles and love for each other. 

Indeed, the personal is political. That is never more so than now in Turkey, where questions of gender have taken an alarming U-turn in the last decade. If I were young in Turkey right now I'd be wondering about these questions too, and I'd find temporary refuge and inspiration in this book.

Did the translation process throw up any particular challenges or surprises?

Of course there were some words that we don't have anymore, terms that were specific to the time. Every book has such words, and that sort of thing is always difficult. But I felt they added to my enjoyment of this book. They add to its period quality. But what matters most to me is the voice. And this narrator's voice is like honey. All I had to do was figure out how to get to that voice, how to recreate its flow and truthfulness. 

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