Can a woman ever make a man feel quite so much, so much she alters his very being? After reading Sabahattin Ali’s miniature masterpiece, the answer is a heart-wrenching and emphatic yes. A subversive Turkish classic, written in 1943 but translated into English only last year, Madonna in a Fur Coat’s opening lines have the kind of ‘sit-down-let-me-tell-you-a-
‘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.’
What reader doesn’t want to be told about a man who creates such an impression? You can barely turn the page fast enough, but the man you meet in the early pages of Madonna in a Fur Coat is not great, or interesting; he is sickly and broken, a translator of bank documents, a man who resents his family only marginally less than they resent him. The only indications our narrator gives to suggest that Raif Efendi is a man with facets worthing turning a novel over to is a discarded, but accomplished, caricature of their boss in a temper and some mysterious reading material Raif hides in a desk drawer.
Perhaps what appeals most about this novel is exactly what its lovers find so beguiling about each other; its prose merges sincere innocence with artistic cynicism. He’s young, naive and disillusioned, learning the soap trade in Berlin during the Weimar Republic. She is a half-Jewish painter and nightclub singer, who believes it more respectable to sell her body than her art. Deeply lonely and a long way from his small Turkish hometown of Havran, Raif Efendi is entirely at the mercy of his Madonna in a Fur Coat. This enigmatic couple’s strikingly untraditional dynamic has fuelled the novel’s reevaluation in Turkey; once dismissed as school-girl melodrama it is now considered a modern classic. Maria Punder is a perfect proto-feminist literary icon, in fact she could be the German sister of Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s Marie, both strong willed women declaring their independence and autonomy as unwavering rights years before Le Deuxième Sexe.
One of the book’s greatest pleasures is the way Sabahattin Ali delves the human psyche, providing insights about love, loneliness and regret in deceptively simple prose; his best are so astute they make Javier Marias’ exquisitely complex sentiments seem a bit like Alain de Botton. Such subtle, accurate descriptions of emotion, which are at once sobering and intellectually invigorating, require deft translation and it feels as though Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe have done a remarkable job here; not a single sentence jars.
I must confess to being as charmed by Madonna in a Fur Coat as Raif Efendi himself. The prose is precise, thoughtful and, although occasionally overwrought, completely absorbing. Sabahattin Ali captures the devotion of early romance with an almost heady fidelity and with a setting reminiscent of Goodbye to Berlin, there is a melancholy restraint to the couple’s courtship that is very moving, especially when set against the hedonism of 1920’s Berlin and the early hints of an oncoming war. This brief novel about a brief relationship is affecting and extraordinary.