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Sabahattin Ali: Kürk Mantolu Madonna (Madonna in a Fur Coat)

Our unnamed narrator has, at the beginning of this novel, lost his job in a bank. His friends help him out, by giving him food and saying they will try and help him find a job but he is embarrassed by this and tends to shun them. One day, while walking in the street, a car pulls up beside him and his friend from school, Hamdi, gets out and offers him a ride. After lecturing him on not wasting his time in trying to become a writer, he asks him to come to his office the next day. He thinks about not going but, eventually, does. Hamdi offers him a job. You’ll keep track of our dealings with various banks, and especially our own bank. He finds that he has to share a room with the firm’s German translator, Raif.

While Hamdi is fairly nice to our narrator, he is not nice to Raif and, moreover, nor are most of the employees. The typists won’t type his translations. Hamdi shouts at him and he is generally accused of being incompetent. Our narrator checks his work and finds that it is, in fact, very competent. Our narrator is initially annoyed at Raif’s reluctance to defend himself but, eventually, becomes sympathetic. Raif is frequently ill but, when he is, he still does work at home. On one of these occasions, Hamdi is about to send some work to Raif at home, when the narrator volunteers to take it in person.

Our narrator is surprised at what he finds. Raif has to share his bedroom with his noisy and untidy children. He finds that there are others who live there. As well as Raif’s wife and children, there are his two brothers-in-law and their wives. They spend their money on clothing and eating out and take the best part of the house, though Raif, with his meagre salary, is expected to pay all household expenses and his wife to cook for them all, about which they constantly complain. Raif takes it all. 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.

But Raif is getting worse. he asks the narrator to bring all the items from his desk. Apart from a German dictionary, these items are meagre, except for a notebook. When he hands over the notebook, Raif says that he is going to burn it. The narrator persuades him to let him read the notebook before it is destroyed. Raif reluctantly agrees. The rest of the book is the contents of the notebook.

At the end of WW1, young Raif is wasting time reading, to his father’s disgust. His father sends him off to study in Istanbul, but the only thing he wants to study is art. (We have already seen that he is a good artist, as he draws a picture of Hamdi for the narrator.) However, he feels that he has not got the talent and gives it up. His father then decides to send him to Berlin to learn German and, more particularly, to learn the soap business, as the father has a couple of soap factories. He does learn some German and does go to work for a soap factory but soon gives it up. He spends much of his time more or less as a tourist, wandering round Berlin.

He sees a review of an exhibition in the papers and decides it is not for him. However, when he passes the exhibition in his wanderings, he decides to have a look. His view is confirmed. It is not for him… till he comes to the end of the exhibition, where is struck by a painting he will later call Madonna in a Fur Coat. I cannot describe the torrent that swept through me in that moment. I only remember standing, transfixed, before a portrait of a woman wearing a fur coat. The
painting was by Maria Puder and was entitled Self-portrait. It reminded him of Andrea del Sarto’s Madonna of the Harpies.

Raif goes to the gallery every day and sits in front of the painting. He wants to meet her. One day, while looking at the painting, a woman. approaches him and says that she has seen him looking at the painting a lot. He is embarrassed and pretends that it is because it reminds him of his mother. Of course, as we later find out, this woman is Maria Puder.

Finally, he does get to see the Madonna in the painting – when he is out on a drunken spree with an older woman. He goes back to the same place in the hope of finding her and, indeed, he does. Much of the rest of the book concerns his relationship with her, which very much has its ups and downs. We know from what we have read at the beginning that it is probably not going to go well. Indeed, he states I have believed myself to be useless and worthless and No matter where I was, I failed to make my presence felt.

The story of falling in love with a work of art is not knew – think of the Pygmalion legend. Falling in love with a mysterious woman is also not new and nor is a love affair with problems. Ali combines these three themes into a story that has resonated with Turkish audiences. Its translations into other languages have also done well. It is not difficult to see why. Ali tells a superb story. The main character, Raif, is seemingly a weak man but a man with a fascinating past, determined by the one key event in his life which coloured his life then and since. Indeed, to all intents and purposes, it was the only important thing in his life, as his life both before and since was essentially a failure in every respect. I can only agree that it is a gripping read and is very well told and that it will remain a classic of Turkish literature.

Publishing history

First published by Remzi Kitabevi in 1943
First published in English by Penguin in 2016
Translated by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe