Translated by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe

Madonna in a Fur Coat is a Turkish novella (168 pages in my Penguin Modern Classics edition) that was written in 1940 and first published in Turkey in 1943. I’ve just managed to fit it in before the end of Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Rebecca.

The book, Sabahattin Ali’s third and final novel, was more or less ignored in the 40s, but on being re-published in Turkey in 1998 its status went from cult classic to bestseller, and it has sold even more copies since the publication of the 2016 English translation.

On the opening page, the unnamed narrator – a struggling writer in 1930s Ankara, who is provided with an office job and much-needed income by a former school friend, Hamdi – describes his deceased colleague, Raif Efendi:

He was in the end the sort of man who causes us to ask ourselves: ‘What do they live for? What do they find in life? What logic compels them to keep breathing? What philosophy drives them as they wander the earth?’ But we ask in vain, if we fail to look beyond the surface – if we forget that beneath each surface lurks another realm, in which a caged mind whirls alone. 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 treasures we never expected.”

Raif is a long-serving clerk and translator of bureaucratic paperwork who is virtually invisible to others. Although his German translations are excellent, his upstart boss, Hamdi, revels in spotting minor mistakes, and Raif’s health is unpredictable and often poor. His extended family take him for granted, taking advantage of both his money and his humble nature.

The only inkling that some residual spirit lies within him are the slightly edgy sketches he occasionally produces, which effortlessly represent and parody whole personalities in just a few strokes. Our narrator succeeds in forging something of a fledgling friendship with Raif, with whom he shares an office.

As Raif’s illness progresses, from his sick-bed he begs the narrator to retrieve and destroy a secret, black notebook, which he has stashed away at their place of work. Inevitably, the narrator reads this notebook, which reveals a vivid account of Raif’s youthful adventures in Weimar Berlin.

After dropping out of art school in Turkey, Raif escapes his patriarchal home environment when he is sent to Berlin by his father in order to learn the soap manufacturing trade (the family have a couple of soap-making factories in Ankara). Teased for his lack of manliness at home (“I can well remember how my mother and – even more – my father would throw up their hands and say: ‘Honestly, you should have been born a girl!’“), he applies himself to learning fluent German and immerses himself in the cultural milieu of 1920s Berlin and eventually explores “its every avenue and cul de sac … every museum, gallery, botanical garden, forest, lake and zoo“. While flaneuring around Berlin he finds himself captivated by a melancholy and poised self-portrait by Jewish artist and disenchanted cabaret performer Maria Puder, who is exhibiting her work for the first time:

Dressed in the pelt of a wildcat, she was mostly in shadow, but for a sliver of a pale white neck, and an oval face was turned slightly to the left. Her dark eyes were lost in thought, absently staring into the distance, drawing on a last wisp of hope as she searched for something that she was almost certain she would never find. Yet mixed with the sadness was a sort of challenge. It was as if she was saying, ‘Yes, I know. I won’t find what I’m looking for … and what of it?’

Day after day Raif returns to the gallery to contemplate the picture, and eventually he and Maria meet in person. The outwardly confident and opinionated Maria lets naive Muslim Raif into her confidence, keeping him physically at arms’ length for months, while being casually cruel about her reasons for rejecting his romantic overtures, although she enjoys his company.

I read a review by Elif Shafak that describes Maria as “rational, wilful, unsentimental and pragmatic”. I have to say the rational and pragmatic side of Maria’s character did not come across to me at all. She quite understandably distrusts men’s typical immediate physical response to her, but underneath is a manipulative romantic and fantasist who needs to be convinced of a lover’s utter devotion before allowing herself to experience a modicum of the desire Raif has for her:

I believe I definitely need to love a man … but a real man … a man who could sweep me off my feet without resorting to brute strength … without asking anything of me, without controlling me, or degrading me, a man who could love me and walk by my side … In other words, a truly powerful man, a real man … Now do you see why I can’t love you?

So Raif pants around after her all over Berlin, utterly wrapped round her little finger, while she pouts and has histrionics, finally getting drunk and allowing Raif to make love to her, before collapsing with a guilt-tripping chill and sulkily ordering him home. I guess it was the 1920s…

What plays out is a melodramatic, doomed love affair that, like classics such as Emily Bronte’s breathless and basically insane Wuthering Heights (which also uses a ‘story-within-a-story’ structure), could only have been written by someone significantly younger than me.

Placing his black notebook before me, I turned back to the first page.”

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