Madonna in a Fur Coat
Seventy-four years ago, nine years before the publication of The Second Sex and 20 years before The Feminine Mystique, a male Turkish communist novelist created a fictional feminist character who is the heroine of a love story that suggests an egalitarian heterosexual courtship can be based on honesty, candor, and mutual respect.
Three quarters of a century after it was written Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali feels both dated and timeless; dated because strong, independent women are no longer a rarity and contemporary gender roles are more fluid, and timeless as the ideal of a love without ulterior motives, the theme of missed opportunities, and the psychology of the principle characters—all of which are conveyed in crisp contemporary English by translators Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe.
It is telling that the relationship is set in 1920s Berlin rather than in Turkey. Raif, the central male character is sensitive, emotional, vulnerable, and his verbally abusive Turkish parents and older sisters refer to him as girl-like, while Maria, the only daughter of immigrants from Prague—a now deceased Jewish convert to Catholicism father and a surviving gentile mother—is unsentimental, rational, analytical and refers to herself as having the mental outlook of a man.
Today, when Turkey’s authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is advocating a return to traditional gender roles, that 1943 book whose characters reverse those roles has been Turkey’s best selling novel for the past three years, outselling books by Turkey’s Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk as well as those by its most popular female novelist Elif Şafak. And just as today President Erdogan jails and murders writers, Ali served several prison sentences before state security officers murdered him in 1948.
The love story is a 150 page novel within the novel that begins on page 49 of this 200-page book. In the first section, set in the early 1940s, the first person narrator is a 20-something unemployed young man hired by a former classmate as a clerk in an Ankara commercial firm where he meets and befriends Raif Efendi, a taciturn man with a bland affect a generation older than he, the firm’s in-house German-Turkish translator whose work is under appreciated and belittled by his superiors, abuse Efendi accepts without complaint. Likewise at home Raif is disrespected by his wife, children, sisters, and brothers-in-law who “resented him for failing to earn more money, so as to provide the luxuries they craved, but at the same time they regarded him as a man of no value—a nonentity.”
This romantic novel is considered the exception to Ali’s otherwise Socialist-Realist fiction, though the criticism of Raif’s relatives’ shallow greed may reflect a Marxist outlook. The word efendi, which means master, lord, or sir, and can also refer to rural land or urban factory owners (Raif’s father, the elder Efendi, is both) has elitist connotations that fit Raif’s class origin as well as his refined taste and sensibilities. And yet he endures verbal abuse at home and at work with humility continuing a pattern that began in childhood. “At home and at the office, he did more than just tolerate ridicule from people with whom he had nothing in common; he seemed actively to approve of those who looked down on him.”
Raif’s health is fragile, and when he is sick his young colleague visits him at home. During the final illness when Raif knew he would die soon he asked our narrator to retrieve a manuscript from his desk at work so that he could destroy it. Our narrator finds the manuscript and cannot resist reading what turns out to be a memoir dated 1933 of Raif’s life in Berlin in 1920–21. That memoir, in which Raif is the narrator, occupies all but the last page of the rest of the novel.
Raif was born and raised in Havran, a town in Turkey’s Marmara district, where he was a shy boy who was mistreated by both classmates and teachers, after which he would come home and cry in a corner, leading his exasperated parents to tell him he should have been born a girl. Why were his parents so unsupportive? In the Middle East interactions are often viewed as leveraged and transactional: one either takes or is taken advantage of, and the latter is considered shameful and humiliating.
Raif’s father, who was considered one of the wealthier men in town, was a utilitarian who disapproved not only of his son’s passivity but of his avid reading. Parental disapproval causes Raif to be ashamed of his inner life, and he abandons attempts at writing and painting for fear of revealing himself. Defeat in Word War I results in political chaos in Turkey and a low cost of living for holders of foreign currency in Germany where his father agrees he should go study soap manufacturing to prepare him to manage one of the elder Efendi’s soap factories.
In Berlin while learning German Raif spends more time in art galleries, museums, and libraries than in soap factories, and at an exhibition of contemporary art becomes captivated by a self-portrait entitled Madonna in a Fur Coat by Maria Puder, whom he eventually meets and befriends. Maria supports herself by working as a singer and violinist in a nightclub, but is free to spend time with Raif in the daytime.
From the outset Maria sets strict boundaries, forbidding him to ask her for anything or from pitying her and warning him that every man who has tried to get close to her has left her when he realizes that she is incapable of loving anyone. Eventually she concedes that she wants to love a man but one who can love her “without asking anything of me, without controlling me, or degrading me, a man who could love me and walk side by side . . .”
Only a self-confident emotionally secure man could be her peer and partner, and she initially doubts Raif qualifies, comparing him to a dependent woman like her mother who needs a man to look after her. She proposes an intense platonic friendship, and he is so drawn to her that he is willing to accept any terms she sets.
“Having never known such intimacy before, I was desperate to protect it. And perhaps what I desired most was to possess her wholly and absolutely, body and soul, but I was so fearful of losing what I already had that I did not dare look away from it. I was in effect, watching the most beautiful bird in all creation and keeping perfectly still for fear of frightening it away with a sudden movement.”
Emotional intimacy eventually does lead to romantic love, but it is a literary convention that romantic relationships turn out to be impossible ones, and we have already met Raif decades later living in Turkey married to a fellow Turk. At the beginning of the memoir within a novel Raif finally learns the reason his and Maria’s relationship ended, a reason only revealed at the end.
As a childhood abuse survivor with internalized self-loathing he is predisposed to blame himself and believe himself to be “useless and worthless,” which is why after the great love of his life ends he emotionally shuts down, convinced he deserves the scorn and disrespect he will thereafter experience at work and at home.
The end of Raif and Maria’s relationship was a missed opportunity, but if they had married, Raif’s childhood emotional scars would have accompanied him into the marriage, though with Maria’s support he might have worked through them with a psychotherapist, or not. Would Maria have adjusted to living in patriarchal Turkey or for that matter in increasingly racist and fascist Europe?
Leaving hypotheticals aside, Madonna in a Fur Coat is an enjoyable read. During the Cold War it was popular behind the Iron Curtain, and now that western countries are beginning to resemble Weimar Germany it should resonate here as well.