Classic novels from around the world can take a while to appear in English. Sabahattin Ali’s Madonna in Fur Coat (originally published in 1943), however, seems only recently to have been fully appreciated in his native Turkey, translator Maureen Freely commenting (in an article in the Guardian which makes a perfect introduction to the novel) that “for the past three years, it has topped the bestseller lists in Turkey, outselling Orhan Pamuk.” Ali spent his writing life seeking to express himself freely in the face of state censorship. He was imprisoned more than once and eventually murdered at the behest of, or perhaps by, the National Security Service in 1948. His oppression is, of course, echoed in Turkey’s treatment of writers today, and Freely sees his adoption by a new generation of readers as, at least in part, an act of resistance.
Madonna in a Fur Coat, however, seems far removed from what we might expect from a ‘political’ novel. First and foremost it is a love story, and one with a gentle and unassuming hero, Raif Efendi. When we first meet Raif he is working as a translator for a firm which trades in machinery; he is introduced by our narrator, a young man who has stated work at the desk opposite, who is initially dismissive of Raif, frustrated by his inability to stand up for himself:
“I’d come to despair of this tiresome blank of a man who sat so lifelessly across from me, endlessly translating… He was, I thought, too timid ever to dare explore his soul, let alone express it.”
The discovery of a sketch Raif has left on his desk alters his opinion, as he realises there is more to the man than can be observed on the surface:
“From that day on, I took an intense interest in everything Raif Efendi did, no matter how trivial or absurd. Eager to know more about his true identity, I seized every opportunity to speak to him.”
As they grow closer, he discovers that Raif is an equally forlorn figure at home, taken advantage of by his brothers-in-law, disrespected by his daughters, sent out for messages despite his poor health:
“What if Raif Efendi really were a simple man with nothing inside? It was clear he had no purpose, no passion, no connection to others, not even those closest to him… So what did he want from life?”
Ali’s intention, in beginning the novel at the end of Raif’s story, is to create a mystery – a mystery which is uncovered when Raif, fearing he is dying, hands the narrator a notebook with instructions to burn it. The narrator begs a night to read it first, and so we enter our second story, set In Germany 1933, where Raif has been sent to learn about the family soap business, though with his own plan to “learn a foreign language, read books in that language, and, most importantly, discover Europe.” It is there he encounters the Madonna in a Fur Coat of the title, a self-portrait in an exhibition of new painters:
“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.”
Raif returns daily to view the portrait, which in turn leads to a relationship with the artist. This is the love story at the heart of the novel, but it is not one which simply sees the couple fall in love, or Raif pursue the artist, Maria, romantically. Ali seems intent on using the relationship to explore the nature of love – even Raif’s reaction to the portrait seems indicative of our tendency to idealise, particularly as when Maria speaks to him at this point he does not recognise her. Maria forcefully rejects stereotypical ideas of male and female roles in love:
“They are the hunters, you see. And we their miserable prey. And our duties? To bow down and obey, and give them whatever they want… But we shouldn’t. We shouldn’t give away a single bit of ourselves.”
Maria is the stronger of the two, and often takes the lead – an idea which would have been more shocking in the 1940s, and still has the power to shock in Turkey today – and it is in this sense that the novel is political.
This dimension may be less important for English language readers, but that does not diminish the power of Ali’s writing in describing their developing relationship. Ali’s novel continues to resonate today because it is about a man who is both ordinary and extraordinary – as are we all:
“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 treasure we never expected.”
This novel is, indeed, an unexpected treasure.