Originally published in Turkey in 1943, Sabahattin Ali’s Madonna in a Fur Coat is still a national bestseller. Ali was ‘one of the most influential Turkish authors of the twentieth century’, and his most famous novel, Madonna in a Fur Coat, which is a ‘classic of love and longing in a changing world’, is now available for the first time in English.
Madonna in a Fur Coat takes as its focus a young Turkish man, who moves to Berlin in the 1920s in order to learn a trade. A chance meeting with a woman in the city ‘will haunt him for the rest of his life’. Its blurb calls it ’emotionally powerful, intensely atmospheric and touchingly profound’. Madonna in a Fur Coat opens in a manner which both coolly beguiles and intrigues: ‘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’. The narrator then recounts Raif’s story, which is given to him in the form of a rather sensual diary beginning in 1933, when Raif lays upon his deathbed.
Raif is the German translator who is employed by the same company as the narrator in Ankara; the pair share an office. He soon becomes fascinated by Raif and his disinterest; he keeps himself to himself, and evades questions about his personal life. This very mystery acts as something akin to a magnet. The narrator goes to visit him when he is absent from work due to illness, and finds that his home life, spent in an overcrowded and cramped house, is far from pleasant and desirable: ‘Though it was Raif Efendi who bore the cost of all this, it made no difference to him if he was present or absent. Everyone in the family, from the oldest to the youngest, regarded him as irrelevant. They spoke to him about their daily needs and money problems, and nothing else.’ The familial relationship, as well as the tentative friendship which unfolds between both men, are both built well, and are thus rendered believable in consequence.
The translation, which has been carried out in tandem by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, is effective. Ali’s prose is more often than not beautifully wrought, and is sometimes quite profound: ‘It is, perhaps, easier to dismiss a man whose face gives no indication of an inner life. And what a pity that is: a dash of curiosity is all it takes to stumble upon treasures we never expected.’ The narrative voice has such a clarity, and certainly a lot of realism, to it.
One of the most important elements of this novella is the way in which Ali displays both Turkish and German history, politics, and culture, particularly with regard to the ways in which both countries altered following the First World War. The mystery at the heart of the novel certainly kept me interested. Madonna in a Fur Coat is really rather touching, and reminded me a little of Stefan Zweig. There is something about it, however, which makes it entirely its own.