Sabahattin Ali’s ‘Madonna in a Fur Coat’: The Turkish Novel That Refuses to Die

Maureen Freely, president of English PEN, talks with PopMatters about this slim, decades-old romance that has emerged as a symbol of resistance in the face of brutal state repression.

“…even when he has a lamb between his teeth, a wolf can hide his savagery behind a smile…”

Turkey’s modern history is one of repeated cycles of repression, thaw, and repression.

Its current dip in the cycle is the most brutal seen in many years. The organization Freemuse, advocating freedom of expression for musicians, declared in 2016 that Turkey was the second most repressive country in the world for artistic freedom of expression. Amnesty International has documented reports of state-sponsored beatings, torture, and rape. Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists have both declared Turkey the worst country for media freedom. Reporters Without Borders says the country is the world’s biggest prison for journalists, while the Turkish Journalists’ Association has found it impossible to keep track of all the attacks on journalists in that country.

The tragedy of Turkey often seems one of historical deja-vu. The latest round, which many observers cite as the worst they have seen, has been the result of authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s tightening grip on power. Elected Prime Minister in 2003, his increasingly authoritarian tendencies sparked the famous Gezi Park protests and occupations in 2013 (which expanded beyond Istanbul’s Gezi Park to the entire country). An unprecedented outpouring of civil society opposition to his regime, those civil society protests were eventually crushed with brutal force. In 2016 the military itself rebelled against Erdogan’s regime, launching a badly organized coup that was quickly quelled. In response, Erdogan took advantage of the situation to launch, in essence, a counter-coup — establishing an authoritarian regime that has imprisoned, blacklisted or exiled hundreds of thousands of its opponents, most of whom had nothing to do with the military coup. He subsequently engineered a bogus referendum to further extend his powers and tenure.

The tragedy facing Turkey’s civil society is, as ever, being played out especially through the suffering of its writers and thinkers and academics. Amid this brutality, a strange and gentle work has emerged as a symbol of resistance: a slim novel that tells the story of a doomed romance between a young Turkish student and an avant-garde German artist.

Madonna in a Fur Coat was first published in 1943. It tells the tale of a young Turk sent off to Berlin in the ’20s to learn soap-making. The listless, bored Turk stumbles upon a striking self-portrait in an art gallery — ‘Madonna in a Fur Coat’ — and quickly falls in love with the beautiful young German who created it. The subtly passionate story of their affair comprises the bulk of the short novel.

It was the final novel of Sabahattin Ali, one of the greatest of Turkey’s tragic literary heroes. A writer, humourist, and socialist, he made his living between the two world wars as a teacher and translator until he was imprisoned and blacklisted by the Turkish state for his defiant and independent-minded expression. Unable to make a living because the government made it known that no one should hire him, in 1948 he tried to flee the country. He’d been denied a passport, so he had to flee illegally, and while the details of his tragic end are still mired in mystery, it seems he was betrayed by those from whom he sought help crossing the border, and was killed either by, or on the orders of, the country’s intelligence services.

Now, almost 75 years after it was written, his most unpolitical novel, the romance between an aspiring Turkish soap-maker and a German artist, has surged to bestseller status in Turkey. It leapt onto the Turkish Top 10 bestseller lists a decade ago and has remained there ever since. In the past three years alone it’s sold over 750,000 copies in Turkey, and the Turkish Librarians’ Association reported it was the most borrowed book in 2015. Its very success is a slap in the face of the current Turkish regime by the embattled youth who resent their growing repression, and the story of its author resonates with the story of so many other Turkish thinkers and writers today. It is a remarkable story, on multiple levels.

The Novel That Was Never Forgotten

The survival of Madonna In a Fur Coat itself was a chance byproduct of 20th century geopolitics. Ali was born in what is now Bulgaria. When he was born it was part of the Ottoman Empire (later Turkey), but following World War II it fell under the sway of the Soviet Union. Bulgaria continued to love its famous (and infamous) socialist son, and Ali’s books were preserved and taught throughout the Soviet bloc after his death. The collapse of the Soviet bloc in the early ‘90s coincided with the emergence of a period of relative tolerance within Turkey (following a brutally repressive military coup in 1980), and publishers began to bring out books that had hitherto been forbidden.

But it was only really in the past few years that Madonna in a Fur Coat has become a cult hit. Why its sudden popularity?

“There are several things,” says the translator of its recent English-language edition, Maureen Freely. “First of all it’s written in a very lovely, sweet, confiding voice. Which is different from a lot of the writing that comes out of Turkey, a lot of male writing in particular. And then, it is a story about secret emotions, or emotions that are not allowed by society. It’s about sexual feelings. But it’s also about family loyalty, which is held now, as before, as being more important than your personal, your individual, your sexual feelings.”

“And so here you have more young people in Turkey than ever before being educated, and being better educated, and at the same time society is becoming more and more constricted, with the rise of the new Islamist bourgeoisie. That’s all that [current Prime Minister Reccep] Erdogan is, really. The new Islamist fascist bourgeoisie. And theirs is an ideology that’s all about family, obedience, loyalty — being a proper man and being a proper woman. So here is this book that’s written in a confiding voice and that takes place mostly in Berlin more than half a century ago — and so it offers that safety and that structure — and young people in Turkey today immediately identify with that voice, and where that voice is. He’s speaking the truth to them.”

A Novel Ahead of Its Time

Surprisingly, despite Ali’s status as a literary and political figure, the novel Madonna in a Fur Coat was received disparagingly by his colleagues when it was first published in the ‘40s. Freely suggests it’s because they couldn’t understand why an imminent socialist writer, known for challenging the state through his powerful fiction and poetry, chose to write such a sentimental romance. For literary men of the ‘40s, there didn’t seem to be much in the way of politics in this novel. A young Turkish dilettante is sent by his father to study soap-making in Germany, and there he falls in love with a German artist.

“The relationship they go on to have is a bit gender-bending,” explains Freely. “And I think that’s probably the main reason why his men-friends found it a little bit embarrassing, because they weren’t interested in gender at all in the late ‘30s and early ’40s. They were all men-in-charge, it was a very patriarchal place. And so I think they found his attitudes toward the relations between the sexes very strange and then they started passing rumours about his sexuality, because they couldn’t understand any other reason why he would write such a thing about a woman who was strong.”

In the novel Maria, the young German artist is at first suspicious of Raif, the young Turk:

“Do you know why I hate you?” she asks.

“You and every other man in the world? Because you ask so much of us, as if it were your natural right… Mark my words, for it can happen without a single word being uttered… it’s how men look at us and smile at us. It’s how they raise their hands. To put it simply, it’s how they treat us… you’d have to be blind not to see how much confidence they have, and how stupidly they achieve it. And if you need a measure of their arrogant pride, all you need is to see how shocked they are when an advance is rejected. They are the hunters, you see. And we their miserable prey. And our duties? To bow down and obey, and give them whatever they want… But we shouldn’t. We shouldn’t give away a single bit of ourselves. It’s revolting, this arrogant male pride… Do you understand what I’m saying? Yes, well, that’s why I think that maybe we can be friends. Because I can’t see a trace of that awful male pride in you… but I don’t know… even when he has a lamb between his teeth, a wolf can hide his savagery behind a smile…’

Ali’s powerful exposition of Maria’s character is laced with feminist sentiments that would take decades to sift into other popular literature, even in the west. Indeed, it’s only today that the book is resonating among young people in Turkey, and others — more than seven decades after Ali first wrote it.

While the book is not autobiographical, Ali probably drew on his own experiences as a student in Berlin following the First World War.

“Clearly he was introduced to a different world while he was in Berlin during the ‘20s, and clearly he never forgot it,” says Freely. “And clearly he could never talk to anyone around him in Turkey about it. That’s certainly the sense one gets from the book. It has that gothic wind going through it. The novel is the only place where he might be able to tell the emotional truth.”

Ali’s attack on traditional masculinity and on male pride was so offensive to his fellow male literary colleagues that it led to speculation about his sexuality, says Freely.

“There are still people — serious male critics — who will still say ‘Oh, this is not… this is a schoolgirls’ book.’”

Looking Beneath the Surface

Madonna in a Fur Coat is also a powerful cry for the relevance of the individual. It resounds with a critique of the superficial judgements that so often characterize periods of repression, whether state-sponsored or induced through other means. The novel is a story-within-a-story, and before it engages with the Berlin romance, it opens with a down-on-his-luck clerk who stumbles into a job with a co-worker everyone else despises. He can’t help but wonder, though, about this person everyone else dismisses. He eventually learns there’s tremendous depth to his co-worker; the narrator is, in the end, shaken by how much he might have missed had he not bothered to try to get to know and understand this silent human being who worked quietly and diligently next to him. It’s a powerful meta-message: everyone’s life has meaning, and profundity — even and especially those around us for whom we never bother to spare a thought. As Ali’s narrator explains, reflecting on the ostensibly boring clerk who works beside him:

“Raif Efendi was the sort of man who causes us to ask ourselves: ‘What do they live for? What do they find in life? What logic compels them to keep breathing? What philosophy drives them, as they wander the earth?’ But we ask in vain, if we fail to look beyond the surface — if we forget that beneath each surface lurks another realm, in which a caged mind whirls alone. 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. That said, we rarely seek that which we do not expect to find. Send a hero into a dragon’s den, and his task is clear. It is a hero of another order who can summon up the courage to lower himself into a well of which we have no knowledge.”

“I’d come to despair of this tiresome blank of a man who sat so lifelessly across from me, endlessly translating, unless he was reading the German novel he’d tucked away in his drawer. He was, I thought, too timid ever to dare to explore his soul, let alone express it. He had, I thought, no more life inside him than a plant.”

The narrator turns out to be powerfully wrong. The story he eventually wrings out of his co-worker reveals a tremendously profound if tragic individual. Ali’s message was one both for an age (his own) where people were too often defined by the repressive labels of the state, but also for an age such as our own, where we all too often fail to consider the profundity of others, because we simply have no time or interest.

Translating Madonna in a Fur Coat

Seventy-five years after its initial publication, this runaway Turkish bestseller with such a fascinating history is only now entering into English translation. Why did it take so long to attract the interest of English-language publishers?

For Freely, the neglect is not exclusive to the work of Sabahattin Ali.

“For me, the question is why did it take so long for any of the great books of Turkish literature to make it into English? And the answer is there was no interest.”

This began to change, she says, when Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk began to catch the attention of readers outside of Turkey. Pamuk’s success began to generate a broader curiosity in Turkish literature. At the same time, the Turkish Ministry of Culture came under pressure to match the standards of other European countries when it came to subsidizing translations.

Freely credits much of the momentum in opening Turkish literature to the world, to the hard work of translators who are responsible in more ways than one for making it happen.

“Translation is expensive, and time-consuming; it adds another stage to publishing a book,” she explains. “In England, and also in the US, there’s been a lot of activity on the part of translators working together, just to try and get more interest in world literature. You know, we don’t work for one literature — we work for them all. And over the past fifteen years we have made a difference. Not a huge difference, but there’s more interest. And I think all those things together have started opening the door.”

Freely, who is also a journalist and novelist with five original books under her belt, grew up in Turkey. It was she who translated several of Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk’s works into English. Her recent translation work stems from an earnest desire to see Turkish literature exposed to a broader audience.

As a writer and a translator, she says it was above all Ali’s gentle and compelling voice that drew her to his work.

“It was the voice. The voice in the story. I have had a lot of tragedies in my life over the past few years, and Sabahattin Ali is one of the beautiful voices that has kept me company. There’s something very redemptive in the way that he expresses his sadness. Very redemptive, and very beautiful.”

The act of translating is a deeply profound one; entered into as an immersive relationship of trust wrapped in a phenomenological experience. Freely has found that to be the case particularly with the Turkish literature she works to share with the English-speaking world.

“With all the books I’ve translated, you live in not just another head, but another world. I’ve always felt with all these books, that I’ve been invited into places with trust that would never be open to me as a woman, let alone a foreigner, even though I spent all my childhood in Turkey. It’s a place with many doors, most of which are closed most of the time.”

‘It’s through living in these books that I’ve come to understand so much more. I love the sound of Turkish, and it’s through the sound of Turkish that I enter the trance that gets me into those places. And then I try to do my best to recreate that trance for others so that they can follow on through.”

“Of those voices, I would say Sabahattin Ali’s is the most gentle and therefore the most beautiful. Which is saying a lot.”

So Much Changes, So Much Remains the Same

The tragedy of Sabahattin Ali, notes Freely, was that “he was both not allowed to leave the country and hounded out of it.”

It’s a repressive state of contradictions that far too many people are also facing in contemporary Turkey.

“[The 1940s] was really a moment in Turkey that is very, very close to the moment we are experiencing now,” says Freely. “It was a fascist, ultra-nationalist time, and the socialists were the ISIS of the day. Anybody who was a dissident was a terrorist — that’s the same as it is now. What they do now — and they have been doing it for the past year in Turkey — is they have deprived almost all journalists of their livelihood, and nobody else will hire them either. And this is true of a lot of academics as well. There are about two million people, if you count the families who are affected by this, people who have been taken out of work and nobody else dares to hire them. That’s what was going on in Turkey at the time [of Sabahattin Ali], it was going through another fascist moment.

“He couldn’t make a living as a teacher, and although they wouldn’t let him have a passport he decided his only hope was to go abroad and then call for his family. But the guide turned out to be working for the secret intelligence services, and so he was killed… When his daughter Filiz Ali was growing up, her mother told her never to mention that she was his daughter because it would be too dangerous. That’s what it was like.

“That’s the story of a large number of people in his generation, and the generation that followed, and the generation that followed that. It’s a horrible thing. I mean Turkey’s not the only country that tries to stamp out its best people, but it certainly has a long tradition of that, and it’s doing so again now.”

Freely is president of English PEN, the international association of writers and translators which spends much of its time fighting against censorship and defending the rights of writers around the world. She’s also intimately familiar with Turkey, having grown up there and been deeply engaged in its literary life. She finds the recent drift into repression to be the worst she’s witnessed.

“It’s absolutely terrifying, and I’ve seen Turkey go through other fascist moments or phases. But this is as bad as any of us have ever seen it. It’s on a par with that period during Sabahattin Ali’s life. The lucky ones who are dissidents leave and the unlucky ones are in prison. I have many friends in prison right now. The lucky ones have managed to get abroad, and my concern is to make sure that they find homes in their new homes, that they get connected in their new homes, but also that they maintain a strong diaspora network so that when and if things turn around, they can go back.”

Despite her status as a well-known journalist and novelist, even Freely feels nervous returning to the country that she in many ways considers home. She was most recently there in May, to return her father’s ashes to the country.

“Turkey is still my home. My parents are both buried there. I don’t feel particularly comfortable about going back these days, but I certainly went back to take my father’s ashes. It’s very, very sad, Erdogan is wrecking so much. There was so much good that was going on. When I went back to take my father’s ashes, the only Europeans who were still there were the ones like us who had a long connection [with Turkey]. Istanbul used to be a city that everybody was coming to visit over the past decade, it had gone back to its old cosmopolitan self. Now those sections of the city are ghost towns. People don’t speak in taxis. They never mention the name of the leader in public. It’s very sad.”

Turkey’s drift into repression has affected its literary community in particularly difficult ways.

“Some people had to leave the country,” says Freely. “Some writers are in jail or have lost their health recently while in jail. Prison destroys health. We’ve lost track of a number of people who are in jail right now.

“Some very free-thinking publishers are still publishing. But none of them know when there’s going to be the knock on the door.”

“But the amazing thing, the better note, is that so much still goes on. For the people who are still there… the spirit of resistance is still there. People haven’t given up. They’re lying low, but they haven’t given up. That’s how I feel every time I go back to Turkey — people are always finding a new way not to give up, by looking after each other but also by being very, very funny. They are always teaching me how important it is to have a very sharp and surreal and bolshie sense of humour.”

There is also the guidance of gentle and hopeful voices from Turkey’s past, like Sabahattin Ali. Ali’s voice may be gentle, but it also offers hope in a trying and tragic time. It is perhaps this, above all else, which compels Madonna in a Fur Coat not just to young people in Turkey, but to a growing international audience as well.

“His story is very, very powerfully felt,” says Freely.

“There’s also this sort of hope. Because they crushed him, but they didn’t crush his words.”

Photo by Andre Avanessian courtesy of Other Press