Madon­na in a Fur Coat

Saba­hat­tin Ali; Mau­reen Freely & Alexan­der Dawe, trans.
  • Review
By – March 14, 2018

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.

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