A novel of doomed love in 1920’s Berlin, Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali is a Turkish treasure. It tells the story of Raif, an introspective and solitary young man who leaves Turkey for the bright lights of Weimar Berlin. In this city of flourishing intellectual and cultural freedoms, he encounters Maria, an enigmatic artist who will come to transform his melancholic life. Told in two parts by an unnamed narrator, we follow Raif’s journey of discovery, as the free-thinking Maria challenges his notions of romantic love, gender roles, and self-reliance.
Our narrator first introduces us to Raif as a middle-aged man in Ankara, where they share an office. The longest serving clerk in the company and something of a non-entity, Raif is punctual and dull, dutifully serving out his office hours and going home each night to an extended family of dependents.
Exasperated by his colleague’s insipid exterior, it’s only with hindsight that our anonymous chronicler realises that beneath Raif’s composure there lurks a turbulent inner life. What a mistake it can be to dismiss the ‘ordinary’ man he says.
‘A dash of curiosity is all it takes to stumble upon treasures we never expected.’
In Raif’s case, his only unusual feature is a tendency towards bouts of ill health and it’s this that sparks their eventual connection, when our narrator begins paying work- related visits to his sickbed. He realises that Raif is single-handedly supporting a family of appalling ingrates, who send him off to work each day ‘like some sort of lifeless robot,’ resenting him for not earning more money and belittling him at every turn. It’s inexplicable that Raif could allow himself to be diminished in this way.
The explanation for his extinguished spirit finally becomes clear when fading fast, Raif reveals the existence of a secret notebook, hidden in a drawer at the office. He gives permission for it to be read, transporting us back in time to his recollections of 1920’s Berlin and the art gallery exhibiting Maria Puder’s self-portrait, known as Madonna in a Fur Coat. She is ‘a swirling blend’ of all the women he has ever imagined and serendipity delivers the enigmatic artist into his life.
Moonlighting as a cabaret performer, Maria is wild and unattainable. Yet she senses a loneliness in Raif that mirrors her own. ‘We could be friends, ‘ she tells him, and they embark on a relationship that begins platonically and morphs into something beautiful, strange, and indefinable. Sick of the passivity she sees in the women around her, Maria insists on enjoying the same freedoms and independence as men. She will not be possessed.
‘There’s one thing you must remember. This all ends the moment you want something from me.’
We already know that it must end and by the time we reach the end of Raif’s notebook, Ali has demonstrated to painful effect how it is often the ‘trivial details’ that govern our lives.
First published in 1943, this haunting novel perfectly captures its place in history, yet is light years ahead of its time in exploring the boundaries of intimacy and identity.
Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali is translated by Maureen Freely and published by Penguin Classics, 192 pages.