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Madonna in a Fur Coat

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Member Reviews

I read this a while back but never got around to reviewing it, which is a shame because I thought that the book (and the translation) was lovely. It is a fairly short novel about a down on his luck individual who gets a decent (but unrewarding) job at a bank and then the friendship he makes with a fellow co-worker impacts the rest of the story. I highly enjoyed reading this novella and have since recommended it to a few friends.
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First published in Turkey in 1943 it has become a classic. It is now published in English and destined yo become a classic for the English speaking world as well. This is a tragic tale of love. Highly readable.
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This book has many things that I normally look for in a book, but I had trouble connecting with the story. Just not one for me.
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First published in Turkey in 1943; published in translation in Great Britain in 2016; published by Other Press on November 7, 2017

The initial narrator of Madonna in a Fur Coat is newly employed in a Turkish firm when he meets Raif Efendi, who translates the firm’s documents from Turkish to German. Raif responds to hostility and derision with “unwavering serenity” and calculated isolation. His children and siblings show him little respect because his earnings are meager. Raif responds as if disdain is his due.

From his sickbed, Raif asks the narrator to destroy a notebook that Raif has been keeping since 1933. The narrator persuades Raif to allow him to read the notebook before chucking it into the stove. The theme of the tragic love story that Raif tells in the notebook has to do with the cruelness of fate, the burden we share of accepting the accidents of life that are thrust upon us.

Raif’s story takes him as a boy from a Turkish village to Berlin, where his father has sent him to learn how to make soap. He has little ambition but loves to read. Learning German opens a world of literature that had never been translated into Turkish. Visiting an art exhibition, he is taken by the modernistic self-portrait by Maria Puder of a woman in a fur coat.

Naturally, Raif’s notebook tells the story of meeting the artist and their odd friendship — odd because Maria hates men, hates their arrogant pride and entitlement, and conditions her friendship with Raif on never being asked for anything. But Maria senses an innocence in Raif. He seems like a little girl (a judgment that Raif’s father also bestowed, to Raif’s consternation), and is thus the kind of man she might befriend.

Raif, who has always “shied away from human company, never sharing my thoughts with a soul,” feels overwhelmed by his unspent passion for Maria. His conviction that life has no meaning is suddenly challenged by the meaning he finds in his chaste encounters with Maria as he experiences the thrill of finally being understood. Yet Maria believes that solitude is the essence of life, that “all unions are based on falsehood,” that we construct the partner or friend we want rather than seeing them in their reality, and then flee when the reality replaces the construct. For all their similarities, Raif and Maria have different opinions about love that place a barrier between them.

While the novel describes Raif’s evolving feelings, its focus is on Raif’s philosophy of life. Raif believes that no woman has ever loved him and none ever will because women are incapable of true love. “Instead, they ached for the unattainable — the opportunities missed, the salve that their broken hearts longed for — thereby mistaking their yearnings for love.” But Raif’s peceptions and beliefs change often, sometimes daily, sometimes hourly. Change is Raif’s only constant despite his puzzlement with Maria, who makes a virtue of her inconsistency, telling Raif “that’s just the way I am … one day like this, another day like that.” At the same time, the story is about a man who understands the inevitably of change but is incapable of coping with it, a man whose will to believe in himself is irreparably broken.

As the novel moves to its conclusion, it becomes a story of tragic fate, and it is Raif’s reaction to his fate that defines the rest of his existence. Rather than spoiling the story by revealing its details (the resolution has elements of a soap opera), I’ll highlight some of Sabahattin Ali’s quotable prose:

“Nothing grieves me more than seeing someone who has given up on the world being forced to smile.”

“But isn’t this how souls come together, by holding another’s every idea to be true and making it their own?”

“How painful it is, after thinking that a woman has given us everything, to see that in truth she has given us nothing — to see that instead of having drawn her closer, she is farther away than ever!”

“The logic in our minds has always been at odds with the logic of life.”

“For a brief while, a woman had pulled me out of listless lethargy; she had taught me that I was a man, or rather, a human being; she had shown me that the world was not as absurd as I had previously thought and that I had the capacity for joy.”

Although set in Turkey and Berlin, the story has no boundaries. Its themes are relevant to any time or culture. I might not recommend the story for its plot, but its insight into human nature, its exceptional characterization, and its elegant prose make the novel a standout tragedy.

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Such a melancholy story! I had no expectations when I started this book and knew nothing about it but was intrigued by an email from the publisher –

As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to imprison journalists and political dissidents, and the country’s plans for EU membership gets more complex, a long-forgotten novel has enjoyed a remarkable revival and become a cultural connection in the divided country … Author Sabahattin Ali, a fiery socialist and critic of the repressive government of his time, died under suspicious circumstances at the Bulgarian border in 1948 as he attempted to flee Turkey. He has now become an icon of resistance for today’s Turkish youth.

The story is simple but the theme timeless – is it better to have loved and lost, than to never have loved at all?

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A wonderful story of unfulfilled love and lost opportunities.  This is a tale of a shy young man’s exhilarating experience of devoted love of a modern woman against the backdrop of social innovation and artistic ferment in Berlin between the two world wars.   The rollercoaster of successes and failures in this romance are classic, as are the triumphs and tragedies.   But this is no melodrama.  It confronts the challenges to achieving the balance in the relationship between the sexes in a way that feels relevant to me today.  That the main character is Turkish and the woman of hybrid German and Czech Jewish adds another dimension that enriched the read for me.          

The narrator takes a job in a large business in Ankara where he tries to befriend his officemate, Rafe Efendi, a self-effacing man who quietly does his job as a German translator for commercial correspondence.   Despite hearing that his translations are timely, accurate, and even elegant, he can’t understand why Rafe puts up with all the ridicule and mockery from his colleagues.   When tasked with taking work to him at home when he is sick, the narrator learns that his wife, children, and in-laws who depend on his income abuse him and take him for granted.     How can such a generous soul end up with such an attitude of defeat and acquiescent to being reviled?    The narrator begins to see the hidden depths behind the man.  In addition to a love of literature comparable to the narrator, Rafe retains a spiritual spark beneath the surface:
Though he looked like an old man when viewed from the side, or from above, he looked enchantingly, and childishly, innocent when he smiled.  

Ali has the narrator lay down some key lessons of this tale near the beginning of trying to see Rafe’s hidden layers:
When misfortune visits those who once walked alongside us, we do tend to feel relief, almost as if we believe we ourselves have been spared, and as we come to convince ourselves that they are suffering in our stead, we feel for these wretched creatures.  We feel merciful.
…And there I was, trying so hard to penetrate someone else’s mind, to try to find out if the soul hiding inside it was ordered or in turmoil.  For even the most wretched and simpleminded man could be a surprise, even a fool could have a soul whose torments were a constant source of amazement.  Why are we so slow to see this, and why do we assume that it is the easiest thing in the world to know and judge another?

When Rafe gets seriously ill, he entrusts a journal from his youth to his new friend, our narrator.   His story begins when his academic ambitions in poetry are curtailed by a family mission to Berlin where he is tasked to learn the business of perfumed soaps as a strategy to expand their olive oil business.  His rich romantic fantasy life inspired by literature clashes with his social awkwardness in talking or interacting with women.  Even I can empathize with his ineptness:
If I ever met a woman I found attractive, my first thought was to run away.  From the moment we came face-to-face, I lived in dread that my every glance and movement might reveal my true feelings.  Drowning in shame, I became the most miserable person on earth.

He finds solace at the art museum, where he has become particularly obsessed with a painting called “Madonna in a Fur Coat”, which features a spiritual, elegant, and melancholy woman whose eyes he can stare into without compunctions.  A woman in a group of artists passing by, Maria, boldly asks him about his devotion to the painting, a brief and liberating interaction that sparks a surprising enticement with her and the courage to pursue her further.   When he encounters her again singing at a dancehall, he is surprised at the friendly eye contact:  
Without pretense, or moving her lips, she was greeting me like an old friend.  She spoke only with her eyes, but she made her meaning clear.

In fact, he is slow to recognize that the elegant woman in the painting, the outspoken intellectual artist, and the common dancehall performer are one in the same person.  I loved how Rafe’s coming to us in layers is matched by layers he must parse in his love interest.   I got some nice zings of wisdom out of the portrayal of love as involving both a selfless and selfish dimensions, such as this highlighting of how sudden love spurs us to reach far while at the same time exposing our yawning needs:

A shaft of light had passed over me, illuminating my empty life with possibilities I dared not question.

I won’t spoil anything more about the evolution of this relationship, but I will share some aspects of her Maria’s character and attitudes.   For example, she has a chip on her shoulder over the arrogance and presumption of men with regard to women, especially their angry responses when their advances are rejected:
…Why is it always we surrender and you take the spoils?  Why is it that even in the way you beg, there is dominance, and pity in the way we refuse?  

Rafe (and readers like me) has no problem empathizing with her modern outlook:
Men and women have such a hard time understanding what we want from each other, and our emotions are so foggy that we hardly know what we are doing.  We get lost in the current.  I don’t want that.  If I have to do things that seem to me to be unnecessary and unsatisfying, I end up hating myself …But what I hate most is women always having to be passive.

However, two barriers stand in his way to getting closer to this alluring woman’s flame.  On the one hand, she pegs him as almost a virtual woman she can feel safe to befriend.  On the other hand, she sets quite a serious boundary for him:
There’s one thing you must remember.  This all ends the moment you want something from me.  You can’t ask me for anything …Anything—do you hear!

I felt I was witnessing the playing out of the idea that a great love can inspire one to become a better person.   How the foundations of a self constructed from its ephemeral substance can sustain the tragic storms of life.   I appreciated the narrator’s journey into hidden layers of Rafe, revealing such a noble bedrock built from love under the surface of what appears to all as a simple but broken spirit.  With Maria, we get the layers of spiritual elegance portrayed in her self-portrait, the free-spirited intellectual and social artist, and the common and compromised dancehall singer.     This story reminds me some of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” with its revelations of the hidden life of an office grind., and some of John Prine’s song, “Hello in There”, about the benefits  of listening to the stories of the old and disabled.  I feel an even more powerful link to Escher’s “Three Worlds”, which illustrates the strange coexistence of life on different planes:    


Written during World War 2 while reflecting on the interwar period, this book likely embodies subtle critical dissection of Turkish society.   But the author had to be careful as he ran into trouble over political content in his poetry and prose and experienced periods of imprisonment as a consequence.  Having a portrayal of a Turkish man ready to embrace feminism while abroad in a European society is one way of highlighting cultural deficiencies at home.   The affinity of the Ottomans for the German Empire during World War 1 was different from the largely neutral but anti-fascist course that Turkey took in World War 2.   Sabahattin Ali writes from direct knowledge of German culture based on having studied there for two years in 1928 and subsequent work as a high school German teacher.   “Madonna in a Fur Coat” was published to great acclaim in 1943.  Tragically, he was killed at age 41 under mysterious circumstances at the Bulgarian border in 1948.  We are lucky to have access to this first English translation.  I agree with the sentiment that this is a hidden gem of world literature.

The book are provided for review by the publisher through the Netgalley program.

Sabahattin Ali, 1907-1948
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Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali is a free NetGalley ebook that I read in early November.

Translated from its 1943 original Turkish publication, MIAFC is quite like Moulin Rouge or Rebecca in its storied nostalgia of a relationship and lifestyle that could have been in Germany compared to that of the 'present-day' first-person narrator in Turkey and his bank coworker, Raif Efendi, who is compelled to relinquish a mysterious notebook dating back to 1933.
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A very different love story that I found interesting and a decent read.

Thanks to Other Press and Net Galley for providing me with a free e-galley in exchange for an honest, unbiased review.
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Great classic book. Quick read but worth it! Highly recommended.
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First published in 1943, this modern Turkish classic is now available to an English-speaking readership and I was delighted to discover it. It’s the story of a doomed love affair between a young Turkish man and the German cabaret artist he meets in the decadent 1920s in Berlin. I found the beginning of the book very promising, portraying as it does this quiet office worker who once had the romance of his life and has now had to settle for a rather more humdrum existence back in his native land. However the story of the love affair itself I found unconvincing and tedious, and it failed to convince me. The great love of his life seems to have little to offer him and I couldn’t see the attraction. The narrative moves slowly and I was glad when it was all over. Raid Effendi himself is an irritating character and I just wanted to shake him and tell him to pull himself together. However, if you like sad romances then this book will possibly appeal – and in any case it’s worth reading to learn a little more about Turkish literature.
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At his new job in Ankara, the narrator shares an office with the taciturn Raif Efendi. Raif’s meekness borders on the exasperating. He seems to delight to taking the brunt of his superiors’ unjust beratings, he is misunderstood by his wife and children and looked down upon by practically everybody else. However, the narrator cannot help feeling that behind this exterior, Raif harbours some secret, and he longs to discover more about his mysterious colleague’s past. When, at last, Raif takes him into his confidence, the narrator learns of a life-defining love affair, a passionate relationship with an independent, artistic young woman set against the backdrop of 1920s Berlin. This highly-charged, if unusual romance, shaped the man Raif is today.

More than 70 years after its original publication (in 1943), “Madonna in a Fur Coat” has become an unexpected hit with Turkish young adults who have adopted its protagonist, gentle Raif Efendi, as an unlikely symbol of resistance against the gender stereotypes promoted by President Erdoğan. 

Good for them, I say, and if this slim novella can bear the weight of a such a brave position it is, in part, a measure of its greatness. I tried, however, to approach this book without any preconceptions. And what did I find? A poignant portrait of a relationship, lyrically narrated (kudos in that respect to translators Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe). Also, all things considered, a moving, old-fashioned love story. I do not used the term “old-fashioned” in a disparaging sense: on the contrary, Sabahattan Ali’s work continues the Romantic tradition of novels about all-consuming, almost obsessive loves. It reminded me – in its emotional intensity, if not in the specifics – of books such as Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Dostoyevsky’s White Nights or Turgenev’s First Love. In its belief in the possibility of two persons becoming one, “Madonna in a Fur Coat” is an antidote to our cynical times. Indeed, the tragedy at the heart of this novel is not that “Love” cannot or does not exist – if it didn’t, we could simply resign ourselves to its absence. The tragedy rather lies in the fact that the circumstances of life often conspire to thwart it. And that, too, is very Romantic.

The novel has another message to impart – don’t judge people by their appearances or books by their cover. The dullest, least striking person might be hiding a colourful history or a deep well of passion. And an unassuming novella, slated by its first critics, might, as in this case, become a cult classic and a radical manifesto.
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Currently a protest bestseller in Turkey, this is a reprint of a 1941 novel by Sabahattin Ali, whose communist politics led to his 1948 murder and subsequent literary eclipse.  The roots of Orhan Pamuk's style are evident here, as the narrator, an alienated young clerk, become drawn into the life of his co-worker, an exhausted patriarch of a traditional family of hanger-on in-laws.   The man, who ekes out a living as a German translator, allows the narrator to read his journal of time in Berlin in the early 1920s--a world of artistic, social and sexual revelations, especially at the hands of Maria Puder, the painter and subject of the title painting, "Madonna in a Fur Coat."  As with Pamuk, the man's struggle to reconcile European freedom with Turkish obligations to family and tradition serve as a metaphor for the country itself (and make it a powerful message to the people reading it as rebellion now).
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