Sabahattin Ali • Madonna in a Fur Coat

Madonna in a Fur Coat is a lovely book with a strange history.

Published in 1943, it’s the final novel of a Turkish dissident, Sabahattin Ali, who was born in what is now Bulgaria, but was then the Ottoman Empire. Within a few years of the novel’s publication, Ali would disappear while trying to flee Turkey. His novel had already sunk into the obscurity that it would occupy for decades.

Then, in the late 1990s, something in the book began to resonate with the reading public, especially the young. Madonna became a wildly popular bestseller, one of the best-selling books in Turkey, year after year. It’s now an absolute classic. No one knows precisely why it caught on six decades late: something about its rebellious author, something about its modern portrayal of love.

It’s in this context that it was translated for the first time into English in 2016. I thought the translation was good; it reads as a modern novel.

Sabahattin Ali, Madonna in a Fur Coat, trans. Maureen Freely & Alexander Dawe. 1943 novel about a shy Turkish man who falls in love with a German artist. Warmly recommended.

 Andrea del Sarto, Madonna of the Harpies

Andrea del Sarto, Madonna of the Harpies

Madonna in a Fur Coat is simple and sad. Two young people fall in love. They talk, they share themselves, they separate. I wanted to shake the main character and tell him that his life is not over; feel devastated, but find new life. I enjoyed it all very much.

A quarter of the book is given to a frame story. The unnamed narrator has been laid off and is unemployed. An acquaintance finds him and gives him a little job as a clerk in a bank in Ankara. His desk is in a small room across from Raif Efendi. (Efendi is an honorific not a surname; the word derives from the same Greek root that gives us author and authentic.) Raif is the bank’s German translator, a quiet, sickly, middle-aged man who meekly accepts the scorn directed towards him. The narrator works his way into Raif’s life. Raif Efendi becomes deathly ill, and has the narrator collect his belongings from the bank, including an old notebook. The rest of the book is the contents of that notebook.

The notebook is dated “June 20, 1933,” though the events are from a decade earlier. (There is a reason for this set-up, but I’m not going to say what it is.) Raif Efendi is a listless young man who’s been sent to Berlin by his father to learn the soap-making trade. While there, he goes to an exhibition of new art, where he sees a self-portrait by Maria Puder, the only piece by her in the exhibit. The painting, done in an older style with the dignity of Andrea del Sarto’s “Madonna of the Harpies,” enchants him. He falls in love with this portrait of a Madonna in a Fur Coat. The artist sees this obsessive at the gallery and speaks with him. In fits and starts, they discover friendship, which becomes love. Then everything falls apart.

The relationship between Raif and Maria is the novel, and its heart is a long conversation. They are passionate yet uncertain, immature yet seeking. They stumble. The text is full of ellipses. Maria expresses her hatred of how men treat women: “There is no woman as pitiful and ridiculous as a man swept away by his passions. At the same time they take huge pride in them, seeing them as proof as his virility. My God, it’s enough to drive a person crazy… Although I know that there is in me no tendency toward the unnatural, I would rather fall in love with a woman.” Her desire is contemporary, feminist, queer—to a remarkable extent, considering the novel’s age.

Maria makes ends meet playing violin and singing in a cabaret. She’s searching for a person she can’t define, and tells Raif that he isn’t who she’s looking for. She loves botanical gardens, though she pities the uprooted plants, a contradictory sentiment I share with her.

Raif, madly in love with her, responds with respect. He’s a fascinating character, Raif Efendi. He’s timid, full of undirected passion and self-blame. When you first meet him, he’s entirely passive. A hard worker, yes, but a hard worker because of self-punishment. In Berlin, he’s aimless until meeting Maria. In fact, he says he didn’t have a soul until Maria showed him that he did.

When she first speaks with him at the gallery, he doesn’t recognize her from the self-portrait he spends so much time in front of. There’s a certain inability to deal with reality in him. His love perhaps shades too far into obsession. After their separation, he lives in grief, which overwhelms him. He gives up on life.

All this said, he’s still a thoughtful, respectful man. You see what Maria sees in him. The narrator, in the page-long coda to Madonna, says, “I did not want to leave without seeing Raif Efendi one last time. But after the night I had just spent with him, in love and truly alive, I could not bear the prospect of seeing him reduced to that empty vessel that signified nothing.”