It’s rare for a classic novel to be discovered more than seven decades after its publication, but such is the case with Madonna in a Fur Coat, written by Sabahattin Ali in 1943 and first translated from Turkish into English in the United Kingdom in 2016. Since then, this exploration of life’s meaning (or lack of meaning) has dazzled Western readers while reawakening the interest of its native audience. The novel is now available in the United States from Other Press.
What makes Madonna astonishing is the deftness with which Ali combines existential themes of alienation and futility with elements of gothic romance, interspersed with observations that are still incisive today. Anyone familiar with the #MeToo phenomenon will find this outburst by the Madonna of the title relevant: “Do you know why I hate you? You and every other man in the world? Because you ask so much of us, as if it were your natural right … It’s how men look at us and smile at us. It’s how they raise their hands. To put it simply, it’s how they treat us … They are the hunters, you see, and we are their miserable prey.”
At the beginning of the novel, an unnamed narrator is given a journal by his coworker Raif Efendi, who lived in Berlin as a young man; this journal ends up forming the bulk of the story. Gentle, perpetually disillusioned Raif first glimpses the “Madonna” after finding himself transfixed at the sight of a self-portrait in an exhibition of local artists. Eventually he meets the painter, Maria Pruder, an equally tortured young soul. They begin a fraught relationship in which Maria lays out boundaries and Raif respects them. Human emotions woven into a compelling narrative are fascinating whatever the period, and they run high in Madonna. The pair is drawn together by their mutual feeling of being “alone in all of the world.”
Raif is sick with love for Maria. She is sick of the world, and becomes physically ill with pleurisy after she dismisses Raif from her life. Eventually compelled to find her again, Raif discovers that she has been hospitalized. He takes care of Maria devotedly, brings her home, and then stays put without objection. In fact, Maria now exclaims, “I shall never let you out of my life…never!” No wonder Raif is a bit crazy, prone to sentiments such as, “And I was but the wheel that had spun off its axle, still searching for reasons as I wobbled off into the void.” Maria, it seems, is the perfect existentialist partner for Raif.
Ali’s novel contains insights about gender unusual for the time, if not contemporary by today’s standards. Both Maria and Raif identify and accept their own non-traditional gender characteristics. Raif recalls how, as a sensitive young boy, he was disparaged by his father, who repeatedly declared that his son “should have been born a girl.” Meanwhile, Maria confides, “I am always completely open… like a man…I’m like a man in many other ways, too… And you’re a bit like a woman!”
The uneasy period in which Madonna is set is felt throughout the novel; the characters are adrift in interwar Germany, a country reeling after its defeat in World War I. Raif has been sent to “safe” Berlin to avoid the chaos of Turkish reconstruction. He lives in an apartment where another boarder brings unemployed German officers for endless talks. Raif observes, “From what I could piece together, they were of the view that Germany would be saved only if another man with Bismark’s iron will came to power to rebuild the army and avenge the injustices of the past with another world war.” Recall when this novel was first published; perhaps the pervasive sense of hopelessness hanging over Raif and half-Jewish Maria (as well as the unnamed narrator) comes as much from the political atmosphere as from an inborn sense of futility.
The epistolary device of a mystery-solving journal is deployed in Madonna to good effect. Dividing the journal into dated entries would have been an easy way for Ali to afford readers a bit of breathing room, since it occupies roughly three-quarters of the novel, but this quibble is minor. If the melodrama in Madonna is sometimes inadvertently humorous, the story of the coming together and tearing apart of the ill-fated friends and eventual lovers is poignant. The tragic overtones are even more acute viewed against the backdrop of the author’s death in 1948 — Sabahattin Ali was killed on the Bulgarian border as he fled Turkey.
Madonna in a Fur Coat describes the romantic discovery of compatible souls while vividly portraying post-war Germany and, to a lesser degree, Turkey. Fortunately for us English-language readers, the translators, Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, have obviously retained the beauty of the original language in this fascinating novel that languishes no more.
Amy Spungen, a freelance editor and writer, has a BS in journalism from Virginia Commonwealth University and an MA in English from Northwestern University. She lives near Chicago in Highland Park, Illinois.