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Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali
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Madonna in a Fur Coat (1943)

by Sabahattin Ali

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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English (4)  Dutch (3)  Turkish (2)  All languages (9)
Showing 4 of 4
In MADONNA IN A FUR COAT, Sabahattin Ali tells a melodramatic version of the familiar love and loss story. What makes this novel interesting, however, is the characterization of the two lovers that reverses traditional gender roles. Raif is docile and nurturing, while Maria is assertive and outgoing. She picks up on these traits immediately by telling Raif that “there is something about you that makes me think of a young girl” while characterizing herself “like a man in many other ways.” While this motif may seem mundane, one needs to place it in the context of the Middle East where strict gender roles are important features of the culture.

Ali tells the story almost entirely in one long flashback. The narrator is an unemployed young man who gets a job at a commercial factory in Ankara with the help of an abrasive former classmate. He befriends Raif Efendi, a shy introvert, who works translating documents between German and Turkish. Raif reads a lot, supports a household full of lazy unappreciative relatives, and ironically seems to the narrator to have little to recommend him as an interesting acquaintance. “He was, I thought, too timid ever to dare explore his soul, let alone express it. He had, I thought, no more life inside him than a plant.” The plot reveals itself when Raif suffers a life-threatening illness and asks his friend to retrieve and destroy a personal notebook from his desk at the factory. The bulk of the novel represents the narrator’s reading of this manuscript, which is a memoir of a period Raif spent in Berlin during the 20’s.

Demonstrating little ambition, Raif’s father decides to send him to Berlin to learn new methods he could employ in the family’s soap-making business. Instead, Raif spends most of his time learning German, reading, going to museums, and exploring Berlin. On one of his visits to a museum, he becomes infatuated with the portrait of a woman in a fur coat, later to see her on the street. He follows her to her work as a nightclub singer. The two strike up a platonic relationship that blossoms into love. With promises to reunite, the two split up with Maria going to Prague and Raif back to Turkey. The pair eventually lose contact but we are left with the knowledge that they may have had a child from their union. Since Maria was part Jewish, one is left wondering whether her disappearance had something to do with the Holocaust.

Ali develops some much-traveled love story themes in his novel, including the roles that fate and missed opportunities play, the compromises lovers make, and the intensity of love and loss. The psychological makeups of the principal characters are key strengths of the novel. However, Ali’s failures to more fully flesh out the intriguing settings of depression-era Germany and Turkey during Ataturk’s secularization initiatives seems to be a missed opportunity. The plot is intriguing, but it loses much of its potential for suspense with the flashback structure prematurely revealimg most of the affair’s outcome. The narrator’s insight at the novel’s conclusion exposes much about Ali’s thematic intention: “It is, perhaps, easier to dismiss a man whose face gives no indication of an inner life. And what a pity that is: a dash of curiosity is all it takes to stumble upon treasures we never expected.” ( )
  ozzer | Apr 13, 2018 |
Madonna in a Fur Coat is well written with a kind of quiet intensity underlying the straight forward but meticulously chosen prose which I really liked. But what can I say, I lack a taste for romance like this-full of I always knew, I could never engage with the world again, let me sacrifice all my life's happiness for this one, etc which always feels like a weight of depression than grand romance to me. I'll happily read something else by Ali though, that prose was so good! ( )
  mongoosenamedt | Feb 21, 2018 |
A young clerk finds himself sharing an office with the self-effacing, Bartlebyish commercial translator Raif Effendi, visits him at home a couple of times when he's ill, and slowly gets to know and love him, but the two of them never really manage to talk. Then Raif becomes more seriously ill and entrusts a notebook to the narrator, which turns out to be an account of Raif's stay in Berlin sometime in the early 1920s.

He has been sent there to learn about the soap industry but actually spends his time discovering German literature and art. At an exhibition of modern art, he is captivated by a self-portrait by the artist Maria Puder (which he starts to think of as "Madonna in a fur coat") and goes back over and over again to look at it. The artist eventually notices him, of course, but when she asks him about his interest in the picture he is too shy to look her in the face, and doesn't register who she is until another occasion when they pass by chance in the street. When the two of them eventually do start talking to each other they never stop, falling into an intensive emotional friendship. Maria is very conscious that there's a strong "masculine" side to her own personality that is complemented by something "feminine" in Raif's, and both of them are afraid of the sort of power relationships that would be implied by a conventional love affair. And of course they do eventually end up in bed together and fate doesn't grant them the time to redefine the terms of their friendship to deal with the effects of that.

Lovely and sad and romantic, but subtle and funny as well - I think you'd have a hard time finding something to dislike in this delicate little book, unless you happen to be a power-crazed male politician... ( )
  thorold | Jan 10, 2018 |
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. ( )
  debkrenzer | Oct 29, 2017 |
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» Add other authors (11 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Sabahattin Aliprimary authorall editionscalculated
Birgi, UteTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Carpintero Ortega, RafaelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dawe, AlexanderTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Freely, MaureenTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Of all the people I have chanced upon in life, there is no one who has left a greater impression.
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A shy young man leaves his home in rural Turkey to learn a trade in 1920s Berlin. The city's crowded streets, thriving arts scene, passionate politics and seedy cabarets provide the backdrop for a chance meeting with a woman, which will haunt him for the rest of his life. Emotionally powerful, intensely atmospheric and touchingly profound, Madonna in a Fur Coat is an unforgettable novel about new beginnings and the unfathomable nature of the human soul. 'Passionate but clear . . . Ali's success [is in ] his ability to describe the emergence of a feeling, seemingly straightforward from the outside but swinging back and forth between opposite extremes at its core, revealing the tensions that accompanies such rise and fall.… (more)

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