When I first started reading Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali, I read more than half of it in one sitting.
I couldn’t put it down.
I was drawn in by the intimate and conversational tone of the writer and by the depth of the relationship between the characters. There was a freedom of feeling between them, uncaged by convention – feelings that are usually kept hidden and seem to only exist as part of the hidden world of the self.
Madonna in a Fur Coat is a story within a story. In the beginning, we are introduced to a drifter, our narrator, who finds work alongside a German translator by the name of Raif Efendi.
Raif is an introvert who is misunderstood by everyone. He seems to not be living at all and the narrator is intrigued by his strangeness. They become friends and Raif, on his deathbed entrusts him with a manuscript that Raif had kept hidden.
From the manuscript, we learn that as a young man, Raif was sent by his father to Berlin to study the scented soup making trade. Instead, Raif learns German and takes to the streets of Berlin. He is interested in art and literature and being far away from his home in Turkey, he had the freedom to explore what he wanted.
One day while visiting the art galleries of Berlin he falls in love with a fur clad portrait of a local painter named Maria Puder. Day after day he returns to stare at the painting – fascinated – until one day he meets the woman herself. In her, he finds a woman whose strength and lack of sentimentality complements his sensitive nature. They become inseparable in friendship until they are separated by fated events.
Set in a backdrop of 1920s Berlin, the relationship between them develops in an unconventional way – from platonic to an intimacy that is completely their own. She makes it clear that he is to expect nothing of her and he, respecting her boundaries draws her closer to himself unexpectedly.
The writer has given the characters the freedom to share their thoughts and feelings without caging them into expected norms. Their genders are fluid without the boundaries that we normally associate with being masculine or feminine.
To me, the story of Madonna echoes the sincerity and depth of feeling present in Pushkin’s Onegin. But Madonna has its own heartbeat. It allows for the intensity of love but also for the silence; for the disappointment but also for the understanding. The soul of one character moves into the soul of another as an act of rebirth, never really dying even when the story tells you they have.
Madonna and Onegin are the only two books that have ever made me cry.
In Madonna, Sabahattin exposes a love that I think we all secretly wish for. He brings it to life for the sake of his characters but also to be experienced by his readers. How real it is, I don’t know but I hope to know one day.
More than halfway through I stopped reading because I didn’t want the story to end. I am not good with endings these days especially when it comes to love. Instead, I let the story rest in my mind.
A few weeks later, allowing time to pass, I gathered enough courage to return to the book and I read it till the end.What I discovered was an ending without an ending. Sabahattin moved me to tears while at the same time the ending made me smile and I felt satisfied.
Sabahattin Ali was born in 1907 in the Ottoman town of Egridere (now Ardino in southern Bulgaria) and was killed on the Bulgarian border in 1948 as he attempted to leave Turkey. He was a teacher, writer and journalist and was imprisoned twice for his political views.
After laying for many years forgotten, Madonna in a Fur Coat has sold nearly a million copies over the past couple of years. Sabahattin Ali has become one of Turkey’s best-loved writers and Madonna in a Fur Coat is one of Turkey’s most celebrated love stories.
All images: Ali Sabahatin Personal Archive