It’s worth pointing out that Sabahattin Ali has deliberately reversed traditional gender roles in Madonna in a Fur Coat.
By Vincent Czyz
Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali. Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freel and Alexander Dawe. 224 pages, $15.95.
Near the end of his life, Sabahattin Ali, now considered one of Turkey’s greatest writers, earned a living as a truck driver. Born in 1907 in Ehridere (now Ardino), Bulgaria, then still part of the eroding Ottoman Empire, he was jailed numerous times on political charges. Among his earliest offenses was writing a poem critical of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic. He was granted amnesty in 1933 and, after writing a poem praising Ataturk (to prove his loyalty), was appointed to a position in the Ministry of Education. The reconciliation between state and author, however, didn’t last, and he was yanked from his post for articles he’d written championing socialism. He took up journalism full-time, co-founded a satirical political magazine, and was once again imprisoned for his leftist views.
By 1948 he had decided it was time to abandon Turkey and live abroad, but the government rejected his application for a passport. Determined to leave the country, he made a final trip—to the border city of Edirne—in his truck. He hired a smuggler named Ali Ertekin for the last leg of the journey, but the 41-year-old author never reached Bulgaria. Ertekin later confessed to murdering Ali—with a shovel—out of patriotic fervor, but it’s far more likely that Ertekin handed Ali over to MEH, Turkey’s National Security Service, who beat him to death during their interrogation and set up Ertekin to take the fall. Consider, for example, that Ertekin served mere weeks of an absurdly lenient four-year prison term.
Ali’s oeuvre includes poems, articles, short stories, and novels. Madonna in a Fur Coat, originally published in Turkey in 1943, drew scant attention. A few years ago, however, Turkish readers showed revived interest in the book, and between 2014 and 2017 more than a million copies were sold in Turkey.
The novel, a story within a story, opens in 1933 in Ankara, capital of the new Turkish Republic. The narrator is a young man who has just been hired as a clerk by a large firm and assigned to an office with a man named Raif. At first Raif takes no notice of his officemate’s existence, barely responding to his attempts at conversation. Not surprisingly, all the narrator sees sitting across from him is “a blank of a man.” Raif, he concludes, was “the sort of man who causes us to ask ourselves, ‘What does he live for? What logic compels him to keep breathing?’”
Gradually, Raif opens up, exhibits a sense of humor, and the narrator becomes a frequent guest in his home. When Raif falls deathly ill, he asks his colleague to retrieve a diary from his desk at work—and the real story begins.
The diary recounts events some ten years distant from the time Raif recorded them and takes the reader to 1923 Berlin: Raif’s wealthy father has pressured him into learning the nuances of soap manufacture. Unable to fill an inner void, Raif travels to Berlin where he sporadically—and listlessly—visits a soap factory. Many days and evenings, however, he spends frequenting galleries and cafés or reading German literature.
Drifting through an exhibition of emerging German painters one afternoon, he is gobsmacked by what he sees: “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.” He decides that he “knew this pale face, this dark brown hair, this dark brow, these dark eyes that spoke of eternal anguish and resolve.” He becomes obsessed with the painting, returning again and again to gawk at it, until the artist herself, taking note of his infatuation, strikes up a conversation with him. Rather improbably, he doesn’t recognize her as the woman in the painting.
Nonetheless, Raif and the artist, Maria Puder, become inseparable, falling into a relationship that is for months painfully platonic. But when the two finally give in to their desires, they descend into one of those loves that eclipses everything else. Two unfulfilled souls, it seems, have finally found what they’ve been looking for. Their bliss is interrupted by the death of Raif’s father, which calls him back to Turkey. Raif plans to return for Maria, but her letters abruptly cease, and although Raif keeps writing, he never receives an answer.
Assuming the worst (which, for Raif, is that Maria never actually loved him), he gives “up on work, and on life in general.” It’s a Mrs. Havisham moment, when some traumatic event leaves the psyche permanently scarred, the character partially paralyzed. “I no longer took any notice of my surroundings,” Raif says, “The joys of life were forever closed to me.”
Raif eventually marries an uncultured, unexceptional, rather unintelligent woman and fathers children he claims to love but from whom he seems quite distant. For about a decade he leads a life that really does make us wonder why he bothers to go on breathing.
Toward the end of the novel, Raif runs into a German relative of Maria’s at a train station in Ankara, and when he discovers why Maria’s letters stopped coming, he falls still deeper into despair.
Despite a fine translation by Maureen Freely, there are a number of flaws I had difficulty overlooking. I couldn’t, for example, sympathize with Raif as much as I’m sure the author would have liked me to. The character is too self-effacing, too unassertive—so timid at times that you want to zap him with a cattle prod (particularly at the end when he makes a discovery that’s now fairly standard in any soap opera). I also find it hard to accept that Raif was so deeply hurt by Maria he couldn’t rediscover love or passion again—“For ten years,” he explains, “I had carried on loving her [Maria], loving her with all my heart. That was why I had allowed no one else in.” I’m left wondering, more than ever, why Raif married and why he had children in whom he took so little pleasure.
Another problem for me is that Maria is supposedly a painter (who gets by as a singer in a seedy nightclub) but, after she meets Raif, she never picks up a paintbrush again. Nor do we ever hear of her work again—except glancingly in conversation. Other than lowering herself to be pawed at nightly while she sings, we see none of the struggles endemic to pursuing a career as an artist, so her professed artistic passion feels like veneer.
The final issue for me is Ali’s style, which tends to be lacking in detail and to verge on the Victorian, as some of the above quotes suggest. Lines such as “A door had opened promising the sublime, but then it had slammed shut, robbing my life of all hope and meaning. I felt as bereft as if I’d awoken from the sweetest of dreams to face the pain of truth” are not as uncommon as they should be.
It’s worth pointing out that Ali has deliberately reversed traditional gender roles in Madonna. Maria is decisive and blunt, while Raif is passive and reserved. “‘Just know that I am always completely open … like a man,’” Maria says. “‘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! […] Maybe that’s why I’ve liked you ever since I first set eyes on you.’” Earlier in the novel, Raif recalled how his parents, exasperated with his behavior as a child, would “throw up their hands and say, ‘Honestly, you should have been born a girl!’” This gender inversion is a key theme in the book, and although it remains relevant today, it is no longer startling or particularly subversive.
In light of how much dialogue there is and how little description, I can’t help thinking Madonna might have been better off as a play. And yet, despite my reservations, I found myself breezing through the novel. The style, Victorianesque though it is at times, flows smoothly, and there’s a yearning in Raif for a life outside the realm of convention, beyond the judgments of society, that is relevant in all times, all places. The most intriguing—and iconoclastic—character, however, is Maria. I can’t imagine many things more shocking to Turkish readers in 1943 than her insisting she would rather sell her “body on the street,” because “it has no importance,” than paint canvases for money.
After Sabahattin Ali’s controversial death in 1948, his body was trucked off by the authorities and buried in an unmarked grave. Although the whereabouts of his grave remain unknown, we have his rather extensive epitaph.
Vince Czyz is the author of The Christos Mosaic, a novel, and Adrift in a Vanishing City, a collection of short fiction. He is the recipient of the Faulkner Prize for Short Fiction and two NJ Arts Council fellowships. The 2011 Capote Fellow, his work has appeared in many publications, including New England Review, Shenandoah, AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, Georgetown Review, Quiddity, Tampa Review, Boston Review, and Louisiana Literature.