Sabahattin Ali’s brief biography on the inside flap of my edition makes for interesting reading. He was considered one of the most influential Turkish writers of the twentieth century, and owned and edited a popular weekly newspaper, which became a target of government censorship. Ominously, he was assassinated in 1948 while travelling secretly to Bulgaria. But by whom he was murdered and where he was buried remains a mystery.
Madonna in a Fur Coat became a bestseller in Turkey, but it was little known outside the country before it was translated for a larger English speaking audience. This is a book I read in January but am only reviewing now as the present worrying state of things have hampered my blogging a little bit.
Madonna in a Fur Coat begins in Ankara with our narrator reminiscing about the novel protagonist’s Raif Efendi – a humble and unassertive man.
Of all the people I have chanced upon in life, there is no one who has left a greater impression. Months have passed but still Raif Efendi haunts my thoughts. As I sit here alone, I can see his honest face, gazing off into the distance, but ready nonetheless, to greet all who cross his path with a smile. Yet he was hardly an extraordinary man. Indeed, he was rather ordinary, with no distinguishing features – no different from the hundreds of others we meet and fail to notice in the course of a normal day.
Our narrator has lost his job, but manages to secure a new position in a factory where Efendi is working as a translator of German. At first, our narrator finds Efendi’s lack of confidence annoying, but slowly the friendship between them grows. He is even invited to Efendi’s home. What he sees though is not a family living in harmony. Efendi lives not only with his wife but also with an extended family for whom he is responsible financially. What makes matters worse is that while these family members expect Efendi to provide for them, they display an utter lack of respect for him. Efendi takes it all on the chin and it is this passiveness that puzzles our narrator.
Things come to a head, when Efendi on falling very ill, calls our narrator by his bedside with a request to burn his diary. Our narrator, however, manages to convince him to read its contents before destroying them.
And this is where the second part of the story begins, set mostly in Berlin and written in his diary, as Efendi recounts his earlier life and the chain of events that culminate in his present tragic state.
Efendi in his early days is expected to join the family business of manufacturing soap, but he shows no aptitude for it. He decides to head to Berlin instead to study painting.
On one of his visits to a museum, he is captivated by a particular painting – that of a Madonna in a fur coat – a painting which draws him to the museum repeatedly. It is a self-portrait by the artist Maria Puder, of whom he knows nothing.
Suddenly, near the door to the main room, I stopped. Even now, after all these years, I cannot describe the torrent that swept through me in that moment. I only remember standing, transfixed, before a portrait of a woman wearing a fur coat. Others pushed past me, impatient to see the rest of the exhibition, but I could not move. What was it about that portrait? I know that words alone will not suffice. All I can say is that she wore a strange, formidable, haughty and almost wild expression, one that I had never seen before on a woman.
So caught up he is by this work of art that he fails to recognize the artist in person when she approaches him. Eventually they strike up a conversation and gradually this transforms into a relationship. But while Efendi is able to express his innermost thoughts very eloquently in his diary, he is unable to actually convey them to Maria. And this in a way proves to be his undoing.
It is hardly a spoiler to say that their relationship is doomed given what we know right at the start of Efendi’s present circumstances.
One of the themes Sabahattin Ali explores is the stereotypes prevalent in relationships between men and women. It is Maria Puder who takes the initiative in her romance with Efendi. She is attracted to him precisely because he is sensitive, kind and leaning towards the arts, which means that he is very unlike the typical man she normally comes across.
She said: ‘Now don’t you dare start thinking like all the other men…I don’t want you reading volumes into everything I say…just know that I am always completely open…like this…like a man…I’m like a man in many other ways, too. Maybe that’s why I’m alone…’
She looked me over before exclaiming: ‘And you’re a bit like a woman! I can see it now. Maybe that’s why I’ve liked you ever since I first set eyes on you…Yes, indeed. There’s something about you that makes me think of a younger girl…’
Madonna in a Fur Coat then is a beautifully written novel tinged with melancholia – the thought of what could have been, of things left unsaid and the consequences of not taking charge. Sabahattin Ali’s prose is languid and captivating and makes the reader feel sorry for Efendi’s plight despite his passive demeanour. There is a fascinating psychological depth to the novel, particularly in the way we learn about what continually torments Efendi’s mind and soul.
Indeed, while I read this novel in January, it continues to linger in my mind even now.