‘Madonna in a Fur Coat’ by Sabahattin Ali

‘Madonna in a Fur Coat’ by Sabahattin Ali

William Armstrong - william.armstrong@hdn.com.tr
‘Madonna in a Fur Coat’ by Sabahattin Ali ‘Madonna in a Fur Coat’ by Sabahattin Ali, translated by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe (Penguin Modern Classics, 176 pages, £10)

It has taken a long time for Sabahattin Ali to be translated into English. Although he died almost 70 years ago, he is today one of the most popular authors in Turkey. Many Turkish readers are ambivalent about the local contemporary writers who are best known in the West – Orhan Pamuk, Elif Şafak, etc. They feel far more warmly about Sabahattin Ali. His final novel, “Madonna in a Fur Coat” (1943), which has been in print in Turkey for the past three decades, has recently become a national bestseller, selling around a quarter of a million copies for each of the past three years.

‘Madonna in a Fur Coat’ by Sabahattin Ali What is behind this resurgence? It is tempting to imagine that many Turks find modern-day resonance in the novel. But perhaps more important is the fact that one of the country’s biggest publishers recently decided to reissue Ali’s complete works in cheap paperback editions. In English, the appearance of “Madonna in a Fur Coat” as a Penguin Modern Classic is late but good to see.

Ali is billed in the blurb as the “father of Modernist Turkish Literature,” but “Madonna in a Fur Coat” is actually rather traditional. It is structured as a story within a story, with our narrator reading the notebook of an enigmatic colleague who has written about his earlier life in Berlin. The whimsical Raif Efendi had left his home in rural Turkey for Berlin in the early 1920s to learn his father’s soap-making trade. Unsurprisingly, Weimar Berlin’s thriving arts scene, busy street life, and seedy cabarets distract the gauche young man. On a visit to a gallery one evening he is overwhelmed by a self-portrait by an artist called Maria Puder. “I cannot describe the torrent that swept through me in that moment. I only remember standing, transfixed, before the portrait of a woman wearing a fur coat … I could not move,” he writes of the moment he first saw it. 

He keeps returning to the painting over the following weeks. “[It] had swept me away from my dark and silent world, delivering me to the land of truth and light,” he gushes. “I had allowed myself to be possessed … I had read enough ideas into that pale face to fill a library.” A whirlwind romance ensues after he and Maria meet by chance in the gallery. She is magnetic and tempestuous, seeming to embody endless possibilities for the naïve Raif. “A shaft of light had passed over me, illuminating my empty life with possibilities I dared not question,” he writes. They go to cabarets together, dance at nightclubs, and take long walks where Maria avoids committing to anything more regular. As in all the best love stories, it proves too good to be true.

Although much of Ali’s other work is satirical, there are very few jokes in "Madonna in a Fur Coat." The mood is as sombre as Weimer Berlin is bustling. The translation by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe is crisp, capturing Ali’s directness and clarity of language. It is occasionally sentimental and there are some clichés, but that is probably deliberate because we are reading Raif Efendi’s amateur notebook after all.

Ali was a dedicated socialist and politics saturates much of his work. For several years he edited the weekly magazine “Markopaşa” with legendary satirist Aziz Nesin. The magazine’s edgy content, firmly to the left of Turkey’s single-party government, led to repeated prosecutions; Ali was even imprisoned in the early 1930s for writing a poem criticizing Atatürk. Fearing renewed threat of jail, 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. Speculation persists to this day about whether the smuggler was in the pay of the Turkish intelligence services.

You have to dig deep to find political resonance in “Madonna in a Fur Coat” – which may be one of the reasons why it is so popular in Turkey today. It can perhaps be read as a parable of the Turkish experience in Europe, or even of a nation struggling to Europeanize. More than anything it works as a poignant love story and coming-of-age tale of disillusionment. The gap between hope and reality, art and ordinary life, poetry and prose, has been explored in many other novels. But rarely has it been written about with the unaffected simplicity and emotional profundity of “Madonna in a Fur Coat.”

* An edited version of this review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement. Follow the Turkey Book Talk podcast via iTunes here, Stitcher here, Podbean here, or Facebook here.