Of the three novels Sabahattin Ali wrote in his short life, Madonna in a Fur Coat is not the one recommended to schools by the Ministry of National Education. In fact, between its first publication in 1943 and a fresh printing in 1983, the novel was barely spoken of in Turkey. But since then, it has sold over 700,000 copies, and for the last three years it has been at the top of the bestsellers list – proving especially popular with the younger generation. The recent release of its first English edition with Penguin Classics might be the next step towards international success.
Part of the appeal comes from Ali’s political personality, which landed him in prison several times. After the final imprisonment in 1948, Ali found a smuggler to take him abroad. The official explanation is that the smuggler murdered Ali en route, but many believe that he died under interrogation by the National Security Service. Parallels with other icons of his era, such as Nazım Hikmet or Orhan Kemal, place Ali in the category of the “dissident intellectual.”
But while writers’ life stories can create a certain mystique around their work, this is not necessarily reflected in the writing. Madonna in a Fur Coat is primarily the story of Raif, a man so utterly downtrodden that he barely reacts to the humiliating behavior of his family and coworkers.
The key to Raif’s character is a tragic affair in Berlin that left him emotionally empty for twenty years. As a young man, Raif’s shyness made him a disappointment to his father, who said, “Honestly, you should have been born a girl!” His sensitivity even prevented him from becoming a painter, as he was terrified of revealing his true feelings.
As a final attempt at making a man out of Raif, his father sent him to study soap manufacturing in Berlin. The young man preferred wandering the city’s galleries, where he returned day after day to look at the captivating self-portrait of a woman. When the artist approached him, he discovered a woman whose boldness and lack of sentimentality complemented his sensitive nature, and they became inseparable friends.
This reversal of traditional gender roles is one key to the book’s appeal with a younger generation of Turks. Issues around women’s rights are constantly on the agenda in Turkey, and liberal women are keen to find role models in their own culture – although the novel’s strong female is German, she was born in the mind of a Turkish writer. Equally, many men want to escape the machismo of Turkish manhood, taking Raif as a fictional alternative. Based on photographs left by her father, the writer’s daughter Filiz believes that Maria was in fact based on a real woman from Berlin that Sabahattin met in the 1920s.
Despite promises to keep the relationship platonic, Raif and Maria eventually fall for each other. But their romantic bliss does not last long. Raif’s father calls him back to Turkey, and Maria has to remain behind – with a promise that she will join him as soon as possible. Raif makes a bitter observation:
“The logic in our minds had always been at odds with the logic of life itself. A woman is gazing out of a train window when a fleck of coal dust lands in her eye; without giving the matter a moment’s thought, she rubs it in. A gesture as slight as this can end in a beautiful eye losing its power to see.”
In just the same way, the accidental cruelty of life separates him from Maria. She stops replying to his letters shortly after Raif’s return to Turkey, and he sinks into lifelong despair. So what inspired Turks to make this tragic book a bestseller? We might conclude with Tennyson’s famous lines, “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” For those whose lives may be made up of restrictive norms and boring, mechanized routines, this story of self-sacrifice for love offers a sobering escape.
The Penguin Classics edition of “Madonna in a Fur Coat” is available from Istanbul bookstores such as Homer Kitabevi, Remzi Kitabevi, and D&R.
Cover design by Coralie Bickford-Smith, Penguin Books
Sabahattin Ali photo in black and white, courtesy of Filiz Ali