Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali

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Translated by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe

Reviewed by Simon

Madonna in a Fur Coat, was first published in Turkish in 1943. This translation is the first time this Turkish classic has been available in English, so the book cannot strictly be called a reprint – but we are bound by the restrictions of WordPress (only 4 categories allowed for the menu!) and the fact that new translations make up only a tiny percentage of new titles. We hope Freely and Dawe – and Ali – will forgive us; this is certainly a glimpse back into the Turkey of the 1940s, whichever way we look at it.

The opening of the novel is reflective:

Of all the people I have chanced upon in life, there is no one who has left a greater impression. Months have passed but still Raif Efendi haunts my thoughts. As I sit here alone, I can see his honest face, gazing off into the distance but ready nonetheless, to greet all who cross his path with a smile. Yet he was hardly an extraordinary man. Indeed, he was rather ordinary, with no distinguishing features – no different from the hundreds of others we meet and fail to notice in the course of a normal day.

This lack of presence is something that does not fade on further acquaintance, it seems. Our narrator, at this point, is a man who has just lost his position in a bank and is hoping to find another position quickly. A chance encounter with an old classmate, Hamdi, leads him to a position in Hamdi’s firm – and, while not revelling in being patronised, he accepts the role and shares an office with Raif Efendi.

It quickly becomes clear that Raif Efendi is the victim of the entire office’s derision and anger – a whipping boy for anything that goes wrong. And this despite his evident capability; it is his meek manner that prevents him from objecting whenever Hamdi bursts into the room to lambast him for a small error, as well as the fact that he knows Hamdi is tolerant of Raif Efendi’s frequent bouts of illness. The narrator watches him curiously, despite himself, wondering how this bland, quiet man can be so good at his job of translating Turkish to German, or where he has acquired his unexpected talent for caricature (which the narrator sees, when looking at Raif Efendi’s doodles).

In a more protracted period of illness, the narrator visits Raif Efendi’s home – and finds that he is equally victimised there. His wife cares for him, and his daughters seem to a little too – but Raif Efendi’s brothers-in-law and other relatives use his home, spend his money, and expect him to wait on them. Again, he is uncomplaining and accepting. All this section of the novel is written beautifully and intriguingly. We sense that there is something else behind this situation, but could also accept it as a believable, ordinary life, given description and vitality with Ali’s look on the world.

But Raif Efendi was not always like this. The bulk of the slim novel turns, instead, to his notebooks – which the narrator is asked to burn, but which he reads instead, promising to burn them once he has read them. And those notebooks tell the tale of Raif Efendi’s time spent in Berlin.

Here, he is supposed to be working – but becomes beguiled instead by looking around the city, exploring an art gallery – and becoming transfixed with a painting of a Madonna-like woman in a fur coat. I love any descriptions of paintings, or the effects they have on people, and this is no different.

Suddenly, near the door to the main room, I stopped. 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. Others pushed past me, impatient to see the rest of the exhibition, but I could not move. What was it about that portrait? I know that words alone will not suffice. All I can say is that she wore a strange, formidable, haughty and almost wild expression, one that I had never seen before on a woman. But while that face was utterly new to me, I couldn’t help but feel that I had seen her many times before. […] She was a swirling blend of all the women I had ever imagined. 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.

And so it continues – and I also omitted quite a bit where those square brackets appear. This might be my favourite section of the novel – where Raif Efendi grows obsessed with painting, turning up day after day and watching it, unconscious of those around him, getting to know the mysterious woman in the painting.

Only eventually does he meet the woman who is depicted – and who, indeed, is the painter. From here, a fairly standard love story develops. I believe it is this section which has most assured the novel its lasting popularity in Turkey – and I daresay it will do the same here. It is a beautifully-written depiction of falling in love, each learning about the other, and coming to understand the obstacles that lie between them. There are many passages I could quote here, and I suspect they are the focal points of other reviews.

But for this reviewer… well, fictional stories of romance are always less interesting to me than other, more unusual, aspects of a novel. It is the romance between Raif Efendi and Maria (for such is, appropriately, the name of the so-called Madonna) which I found least interesting in the novel. For me, the sections looking at Raif Efendi in the present day, or looking at his early wanderings in Berlin, or looking at the narrator’s response to events – these were all the most captivating and beautifully portrayed. Horses for courses, no?

But either way, my first (I think) foray into Turkish literature has been a success. Thank you Penguin, Freely, and Dawe for providing the opportunity to make Ali’s acquaintance.

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Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors – and his equivalent for a beguiling painting is, less romantically, Cows at Cookham by Stanley Spencer.

Sabahattin Ali, Madonna in a Fur Coat (Penguin, 2016). 978-0241206195, 167pp., hardback.

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