Sabahattin Ali's Madonna in a Fur Coat (Kürk Mantolu Madonna) has been touted by a number of reviewers as a reemerging popular novel in Turkey, a love story that speaks to young Turks after the Gezi Park protests that took over central Istanbul in June 2013. The book has solidly held its place on bestseller lists in Turkey from as early as 2011, suggesting that there has been a longing for a novel like this one, 57 years after its initial publication. As Ralph Hubbell writes in the Tin House blog, a certain nostalgia scents the air, one for a time when Turkey's economy was on the rise, and indeed before the even deeper polarization of the 2017 presidential referendum. As Hubbell says, the country had felt as if it was rising onto a peak, but it “began to slip from crisis to more frequent crisis. With each one—a corruption scandal, mining disasters, the renewed Kurdish conflict, the Syrian Civil War, large scale protests, damning journalism— Erdoğan ...squashed dissent, stacked the judiciary.” For many, nostalgia for a brief time in Turkey that was not perfect, but felt freer and felt much more open, is what scents the air. That Ali's own life, and his work during the last single party system in Turkey, has a resonance with today is, then, no surprise.
Sabahattin Ali moved from Ankara to Istanbul in 1945, after being barred from teaching because of his political writing. He started up the satirical weekly magazine, Marko Paşa, which has been said to refer to then-leader of the Republican People's Party and former president, İsmet İnönü. The magazine was shut down several times, and reopened under various names, and continued to run when its editors weren't imprisoned. In 1948, Ali ultimately shut down the magazine after more time in prison. He could not find work at that point as a writer or a teacher, and on concluding that there was no future for him in Turkey, and having been denied a passport, he tried to have himself smuggled over the Bulgarian border.
He never made it. His smuggler, Ali Ertekin, quickly claimed responsibility for bludgeoning the writer to death with a shovel, but it has long been believed that the National Security Service was responsible for his death. This legacy and Ali's more political writings have long overshadowed his gem of a novel, Madonna in a Fur Coat.
The novel's frame narrative focuses on Raif who, at the start of the novel in the 1940s, is an old man with nothing to live for, one who mysteriously reads a notebook at work. When the novel leaps away from the frame into the meat of the story, we learn that Raif, as young man, was sent by his father to Berlin to study soap-making techniques to bring back to his family's factory in Turkey. Very soon into his arrival, Raif, instead of studying the techniques of a German soap factory, spends his time reading with his newly-acquired German and frequenting an art exhibition. In the German books, he finds a sense of community that he never had before:
“A new world had opened itself up to me. I had moved beyond the translated literature of my childhood, in which heroic figures embarked on unrivalled adventures. The books I was now reading spoke of people like me, of the world I saw and heard around me. They spoke of things I had witnessed but not really grasped. Now their true meanings began to emerge.”
His feelings are familiar to any reader who suddenly finds the community and like-minded souls that one lacks around them, and that too is what happens when Raif sees Maria Puder, the titular “Madonna in a Fur Coat,” in a self-portrait that he visits repeatedly at an exhibition.
In seeing Maria in the painting, he finds his ur-woman, someone who combined all the women he had ever known into one body – Halit Ziya Uşaklıgıl's Nihal, Vecihi Bey's Mehcure, Cavalier Buridan's love, Cleopatra and Muhammad's mother – “a swirling blend of all the women ...[he] had ever imagined” with the soul of Andrea del Sarto's Madonna of the Harpies, that of a woman who “had developed her own ideas on how to live.”
Suffice to say, it is easy for the reader and for Raif to love Maria for her independence and for that feeling of belonging. Much as Maria tries to put Raif off, claiming that she is incapable of love, one gets the sense that what truly bonds the pair is that they are individuals who have found that they are the exceptions to their gender. Raif has been told since he was a child that he ought to have been born a girl. Maria herself says that she was never able to make friends with girls because, unlike her, “They had no interest in being real people: They preferred to be objects of desire and act like dolls.” Likewise, she couldn't make friends with boys, since they understood that she was just as independently-minded as they were. Unlike these boys, Raif craves her independence and assertiveness, and it is through this that a reader, no matter what their gender, can connect to the novel. We all crave connection and acceptance, no matter how much our expression of gender aligns with established or enforced societal norms, and this, too, is what one can suppose that Turkish readers have seen in this novel, as well.
What also makes Madonna in a Fur Coat so wonderful is the prose, which movingly brings out that story, so much so that one wonders if the novel would have been one of the most-read and beloved books in English, had it been translated sooner. Yes, the novel is specific to Turkey and Berlin in the 1930s, but the universality of the love story, of the shy, woman-manly Raif, and of the assertive, man-womanly Maria, and of their deep connection is such that one can imagine that Madonna in a Fur Coat will have a lasting legacy beyond Turkey. Human connection, it reminds us, is a universal need, and it is when we are young and feel that no one else can understand us that we recognize that need the most.