Madonna in a Fur Coat has a backstory almost as long as the novel itself. “When it was first published in Istanbul in 1943,” wrote Maureen Freely, one of the two translators of the recent English-language edition, in the Guardian, “it made no impression whatsoever.”
Yet in the past few years, the final novel of dissident Turkish author Sabahattin Ali has come into its own: this melancholic story of a doomed romance has for three years topped the Turkish bestseller lists, outselling—according to an account in the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet—Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk’s recent A Strangeness in My Mind by 50%. “It is,” continued Freely, “read, loved and wept over … most of all by young adults.”
This has been something of a slow burn—Freely says the book had long been “the sort of book that passed from friend to friend”, and it has been in the been in the Turkish “top ten” lists for a decade, according to the agency that holds the rights, a period that overlaps perhaps not entirely coincidentally with the tenure of Prime Minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—but it is nevertheless rather as if The Great Gatsby were outselling, if not Dan Brown, then Jonathan Franzen or Maya Angelou.
The core of Madonna in a Fur Coat is the account of a love affair between Raif, a feckless young man from Ankara who, addicted to romantic novels, has been sent by his father to Berlin to learn something useful like how to make luxury soap. Instead, he learns German and devours books, especially Russian fiction. Assiduously ignoring paternal directions which arrive periodically in the post, he wanders the streets and frequents art galleries. In one of these, he is struck by a “portrait of a woman wearing a fur coat.” He is transfixed:
Surely I knew this pale face, this dark brown hair, this dark brow, these dark eyes that spoke of eternal anguish and resolve. I had known that woman since I’d opened my first book at the age of seven — since I’d started, at the age of five, to dream… She was a swirling blend of all the women I had ever imagined.
Hoping to learn more, he dives into the exhibition catalogue, but only finds “Maria Puder, Selbsporträt”. A newspaper article on the exhibition compares the painting to Andrea del Sarto’s Madonna delle Arpie. He rushes off to buy a print—and only then it occurs to him that his Madonna, the one in the fur coat, must “exist in real life”.
He returns to the gallery day after day, and of course meets her. The inevitable unfolds, but untraditionally. Raif has no experience with women, and Maria—echoing the words of Raif’s father—finds something feminine in him. Maria, who has a day job (or rather a night job) as a cabaret singer, meanwhile thinks herself
completely open … like a man … I’m like a man in many other ways, too.
She has decided that she is not be pushed around: any relationship is to be strictly on her conditions which, while extremely close, are decidedly platonic.
All the melancholy and heart-tugging is embedded in something deeper.
Sabahattin Ali was not in his time known for Madonna in a Fur Coat. Ali’s daughter Filiz was quoted in the New York Times as saying that Ali himself didn’t put much stock in the novel and that Ali’s friends told him that “such a romantic book” wasn’t good for his reputation. A writer with clear socialist leanings, Ali was jailed more than once, the first time early in the career as a teacher for a poem critical of Atatürk. He co-edited or co-published several journals which resulted in prosecution and a return to jail. Denied a passport in the post World War Two period, Ali tried to sneak out of Turkey in 1948 and was murdered by the “smuggler” who was to take him across; government complicity was, and is, suspected.
Ali had, like his protagonist, a stint in Berlin after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, where he, again like his protagonist, also learned German, which he later taught. While in Berlin, he met a Maria Pruder; a photo of the two of them survives.
The fictional Maria Pruder is half-Jewish. This is not dwelled upon, but it cannot be entirely anachronistic, knowing what we now know and what Ali, writing in the early 1940s, must also have known, to perceive a lingering shadow. Here, as elsewhere, there are only the most tenuous hints at politics, but one cannot help think that Ali might, as he wrote the tragic ending of Madonna, have wondered what happened to the real-life Maria under the Nazis.
Ali’s own story as a dissident, freethinking romantic jailed for his beliefs may be a factor in the book’s current popularity—it must be hard to disentangle these things—but it could just also be the appeal of the story itself. Innocence, sexuality and social resistance combine in a story of two young people who are not just refusing to accept gender and other socially-imposed roles, but who are also finding themselves in each other. Maria decries the dominance that she claims comes with hetereosexual love, yet she longs for it. Raif is trying hard to grow up. There is a great deal of introspection; both monologue and dialogue is much peppered with ellipses rendering it rather breathless.
Ali’s daughter Filiz told the Times that when she talks about the book in schools, students—including boys—have tears in their eyes. A latter-day Sorrows of Young Werther, perhaps. But Madonna in a Fur Coat may be less Goethe than Kurban Said, the Jewish, Baku-born author of Ali & Nino and The Girl from the Golden Horn, the former also a Romeo & Juliet-style romantic tragedy and the latter also featuring a Turk, in this case a young woman, unmoored in inter-War Mitteleuropa. The focus on monologue and dialogue rather than action is reminiscent of Sandor Marai, another post-Imperial Mittleuropa writer of psychologically-intense novels of almost exactly the same period.
The translation by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe feels right, true to the period and locales, colloquial yet rooted in cadences of a couple of generations back. But the euphony of title alone—Kürk Mantolu Madonna—makes one wish one could read the Turkish.
“It is read, loved and wept over … most of all by young adults.”
Young people not always being the best judges of literary merit, is the book worth the attention? Well, yes: all the melancholy and heart-tugging is embedded in something deeper. Raif loses Maria, although not in the way he thinks; what’s left of his life is later shattered by an accidental encounter when the train, literally and metaphorically, leaves the station without him.
If this psychological scarring were not enough, we meet Raif when he is in uncommunicative middle-age, introduced through a younger colleague and, insofar as Raif has one, confidant. The narrator, some quarter of the way in, is told by Raif on his deathbed to fetch his journal. Only then do we hear Raif’s story. In lesser hands, this story in a story might be trite, but just as Raif and Maria find themselves through each other, this other narrator only comes to understand his own restlessness through Raif’s story.
When he returns after having imbibed the journal, Raif has died.
That same night, he’d left his life behind and entered mine… Wherever I went, he’d be there at my side.
One suspects that the novel’s current popularity may be the result of its readers, especially those “young adults”, being left feeling much the same.