Sabahattin Ali’s ‘Madonna In A Fur Coat’: Turkey Then And Now
It’s a rainy December night. I’ve just been trekking through a particularly foggy Regents Park when I find myself on Baker Street. As the cold air beats against my face, I’m confronted by a bookshop I’ve never seen before. Maximum curiosity having been piqued, I enter, and am immediately handed a leaflet: ‘Alef is the largest chain of bookshops in Egypt. Baker Street is our first branch internationally.’ This isn’t some corner section of a Turkish Super Market in Whitechapel - it’s a whole shop in the middle of Central London devoted to books from Middle Eastern authors whose names sound just like mine.
As I browse, I’m drawn to a single book, glowing in the middle of the room. As if caught in its magnetic field, I approach Madonna In A Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali. I buy the book (obviously), alongside an anthology of poems. ‘Are you learning Arabic?’ asks the painfully attractive cashier. So strong is his hold on me in that moment that I nearly put down a deposit on an Arabic crash course. He tells me I’ll love Madonna, but I know that already.
Ali’s novel is an exploration of youthful compulsion. It’s a love story about a chance encounter in an art gallery which comes to define a lifetime. The narrator, a young man lacking in life experience, confidence, and a traditionally accepted sense of masculinity, leaves his home in stifling rural Turkey and heads to Berlin in search of something else, without the faintest idea of what that ‘something else’ is. So ensues a series of late nights walking the streets of Berlin, countless confusing chance encounters with true love, sexual misadventures disguised as true love, and pervy drunken neighbours. Sounds cripplingly millennial, right? Wrong: it was first published in 1943.
Sabahttin Ali was socialist writer and teacher who spent a lifetime in and out of prison thanks to his political beliefs. After publicly reading a poem which critiqued Mustafa Ataturk, the first president of the newly formed Turkish Republic, he was banned from teaching. The ban was only lifted after he penned another poem in praise of the president. In 1948 Ali was found murdered at the border crossing to Bulgaria, having been forced out of Turkey following the dissolution of his satirical magazine Marco Pasha. It’s all very Orwellian.
So, why is a book that has laid dormant for so many years suddenly become a global best seller? And why has the publisher waited until 2016 to translate the novel into English? The answer, it seems to me, is because we need it now, perhaps more than ever. As world politics intensify we're finding ourselves hungry for more diverse narratives. The translation of brilliant novels is a gift which allows us to empathise with each other.
Given the political context surrounding Ali one might expect Madonna In A Fur Coat to be interwoven with doctrine and thinly veiled satire. The fact it isn’t is what makes this book so powerful. It's about the personal. When we look to what the radical authors before us wrote about in all sorts of different contexts- from Ernest Hemingway to James Baldwin - so much of their work centred on that most universal thing: love.
Madonna In A Fur Coat is about the politics of living and loving. The narrator falls in love with a woman in a painting (Tinder, circa 1943?) and the story that follows is at once a bleak and brilliant reminder of the irrevocable power of love to change a life forever in spite of all else. This simultaneously hopeful and painful story made me want to rush back to Alef & declare my love to the cashier. Before it’s too late.
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