“All unions are based on falsehood.”
Madonna in a Fur Coat from Turkish author Sabahattin Ali, set partly in 1920s Berlin, is the story of a doomed love affair. The novel begins in Ankara when our narrator, a young unemployed bank clerk, meets an old classmate who offers him a job. Desperate, the young man swallows his pride and finds himself sharing an office with a German translator named Raif Efendi. Efendi is mild mannered, quiet and, in the eyes of the narrator, boring and uninteresting:
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 to ever dare to explore his soul, let alone express it. He had, I thought, no more life inside him than a plant.
The narrator isn’t the only one to have a low opinion of Efendi. Efendi is treated badly by everyone in the office, and although Efendi is a good worker (managing to keep deadlines with frequent bouts of illness), even the boss picks him out for special ridicule, and then one day an incident occurs which causes the narrator to revise his opinion of Efendi.
From that day on, I took an intense interest in every thing Raif Efendi did, no matter how trivial or absurd. Eager to know more about his true identity, I seized every opportunity to speak to him.
Eventually the narrator is invited to Efendi’s home, but still Efendi’s secrets remain elusive. Just as Efendi is belittled and humiliated at work, he holds the same position at home, in spite of the fact that his wages support his large extended family. The narrator knows that there’s more to Efendi than meets the eye–there’s some deep sadness and yet Efendi seems somehow above the emotions of his humble circumstances.
Part of the story is told through Efendi’s notebook, and this section takes us to 1920s Berlin when Efendi, as a young man, is sent by his wealthy father to learn the soap industry in Germany. Here Efendi, torn between duty and desire, meets and is bewitched by, Maria, the “Madonna in a Fur Coat,” a young artist who has very definite ideas about men and relationships.
This is a romantic story, and regular readers of this blog, know that I am not keen on romance. I struggled at times with two characters who seem determined to be miserable, but don’t let me put you off; I still appreciated the novel. Scrape away the doomed romance, and for this reader, the novel is about power. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator, who’s in desperate need of a job, silently acknowledges that he must listen to his old friend wax on about his success as this is all a power play. Similarly, Efendi is a powerless person throughout the entire novel; he’s certainly not made of the sort of material we normally consider for a romantic hero. Efendi is ‘manhandled’ by his landlady and accepts whatever Maria demands
Artist/singer Maria sets the terms of her affair with Efendi from day one, telling him,
“This all ends the moment you want something from me. You can’t ask for anything … Anything-do you hear?” It was almost as if she were arguing with a faceless enemy, for now, as she continued, her voice was thick with anger. “Do you know why I hate you? You and every other man in the world? Because you ask so much of us, as if it were your natural right.”
It’s a painful affair with Efendi and Maria both feeling the lack of something they cannot define. Possession does not bring satisfaction but only distance:
How painful it is, after thinking that a woman has given us everything, to see that in truth she has given us nothing–to see that instead of having drawn her closer, she is farther away than ever!
In some ways Madonna in a Fur Coat reminded me of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. The novel was first published in Turkey in 1943. Sabahattin Ali (1907-1948) was killed trying to cross the Bulgarian border.
Translated by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe.