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Lost & Found: Ralph Hubbell on Sabahattin Ali
No one has ever congratulated me for reading a book before, I suppose except for my first—that is not until last summer in Istanbul, when a few of my Turkish friends saw me toting around the new translation of Sabahattin Ali’s Madonna in a Fur Coat.
I felt as if I was being congratulated for finally showing up to something, and yet I felt like I’d arrived late. There had been a party of sorts, and it had ended badly. I’m referring to the Gezi Park Protests of 2013. The Istanbul municipality had attempted to raze one of the last of the city center’s green spaces, without, as should have been the case, any public consultation. The plan, consecrated from on-high by then-prime minster Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was to construct a kitschy mock barracks mall. After a brutal police crackdown on the initial sit-in, Gezi quickly evolved into a demonstration comparable—in size, scope and the existential nature of its threat to authorities—to the May 1968 events in France.
For two weeks, the park was in a state of the kind of anarchy that actually warms the heart. A makeshift infirmary and kitchen appeared first, followed by a veterinarian ward, a library, a children’s workshop, a stage for concerts, mobile drama workshops and a number of other institutions. Homosexuals kissed freely. Political party flags were banned. Immigrants stood amid applause, holding placards that said, “Today I got my citizenship.” I was lucky to have been there, alongside my wife and our friends, and I have to say, I’ve never been so optimistic about my fellow man since. (Now) President Erdoğan extended little to no understanding—extended nothing, really, but his vitriol—and when the police re-entered Gezi Park and Taksim Square, they were merciless, setting fire to tents, wielding billy clubs and spraying water cannons. In twenty days, they used 130 thousand canisters of tear gas. Nevertheless, Gezi had been a celebration of peace, beauty, egalitarianism and respect, and it seemed to me at the time, based on how many people I’d seen reading Kurk Mantolu Madonna, as it’s called in Turkish, that for the broad swath of Turkish fifteen to forty year-olds the book was the movement’s required text.
Two things about this phenomenon fascinate me. One is that Madonna in a Fur Coat was first published in 1943; since 1998 it has gone through 79 Turkish editions, selling over 750,000 copies since the Gezi Park protests alone. According to the English language newspaper “Daily Sabah,” a photo composition of the book and a cup of coffee or tea was one of the most popular images on Instagram in 2015, with over 60,000 photos posted to the #kurkmantolumadonna hashtag. And when a Turkish morning show host recently pooh-poohed both the book and its film adaptation because she thought it was about Madonna the pop star—she then “doubled down,” as we say here, insisting that she’d read the book—she was, as she claimed, “lynched” on social media.
The other fascinating thing is that Madonna in a Fur Coat isn’t a political work. Rather, it’s a simple yet gorgeously written love story about a shy, cynical young man named Raif, who is sent by his father to Berlin to learn the scented soap-making trade. Of course, Raif, a former art student, does nothing of the sort. Instead he visits every art gallery he can, falls in love with the fur-clad self-portrait of a local painter named Maria Puder, and, upon meeting her, falls in love with Maria herself. The rest of the book narrates the gradual flowering, and withering, of their relationship. Maria moves to Prague. Raif returns to Ankara. There’s a twist towards the end, but a necessary one—and that’s it. By the way, I’m not spoiling anything. The book, in the spirit of Stefan Zweig’s frame stories, begins with Raif as an unhappy and infirm old man, and it’s through his personal diary that we get the meat of the novel, which takes place in Berlin.
If Ali had wanted to write a political work—and he was a deeply political man—he had gathered all of the elements to do so. He wrote Madonna in a Fur Coat over the winter of 1940-41 in a tent while doing a second tour of obligatory military service, when the Second World War was surely on his mind. As for the story, it is set in the newly founded Turkish Republic shortly after the First World War, shifts to the political tinder box that was Berlin in the twenties, and features as its two main characters a Turk and a Jew. But to politics Ali grudges only a curt nod. No more than half a page, it comes up as an atmospheric stroke in which Raif sums up the messianic jingoism of the newly discharged German officers that frequent his pension, and the vapid political dinnertime oratory of the boarders. With the idealistic Maria Puder affixed to his mind, Raif never fails to slip out of the room unnoticed. You can’t help but feel as if Sabahattin Ali himself were slipping out too. “I could talk politics,” he seems to say, “but that, being below us, is not what I’m interested in. I’m interested in an ideal version of love.”
Sabahattin Ali was born in 1907 in the region of the Ottoman Empire that is now Bulgaria. He is Turkey’s best-known writer, the centerpiece, really, of one of the greatest literary traditions most people have never heard of: the Turkish Republican period. Ali, however, was not only a writer, but also a high school German teacher, a translator, a journalist and a poet—and a political one at that. It was his leftist views that got him arrested early in his career, under the pretext that he’d been spreading communist propaganda, and it was his criticism of the Turkish one-party state, as well as a poem that criticized Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, that eventually got him thrown into prison. Ali ran afoul of the state so much that he ultimately lost his teaching license and had to take up employment as a truck driver. When Turkey finally moved to a two-party system in 1945 it was at the expense of the left. A witch-hunt ensued, and Ali tried to escape into Syria. Unsuccessful, he tried in 1948 for Bulgaria and was murdered at the border. Because it took two and a half months for his death to be announced, and because his killer had ties to the Nation Security Service, most everyone today accepts that he had either been assassinated by a paid thug of the state, or he’d been handed over to the authorities, who’d killed him during interrogation. Ali was only 41.
What we have here, then, is an apolitical book, which has found massive appeal seventy years later among Turkey’s activist youth. After I read the book, I had to sit back and ask—as beautiful as the work is—why?
Maureen Freely, the translator, has one idea. Best known for bringing Orhan Pamuk into English—as well as two works by Ali’s contemporaries: Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar’s 1954 novel The Time Regulation Institute and a collection of Sait Fayik Abasıyanık’s short stories called A Useless Man—she has speculated that the resonant power of Madonna in a Fur Coat among Turkish youth and millennials has something to do with the fluid gender roles of the book’s two main characters. When Raif chances upon his Madonna in the street, he follows her to a Berlin cabaret where she moonlights as a sort of itinerant fiddler singing and playing for tips, and her voice, he says, falls as low as a man’s. Maria recognizes him from the gallery, where she’s seen him staring at her portrait. She sits at his table, declaring her openness to his friendship but warning him that she has the candidness of a man. “I’m like a man in many other ways too,” she says. “Maybe that’s why I’m alone…”
Maria, meanwhile, wonders at how much Raif resembles a young girl. But she isn’t being insulting; rather she’s trying to identify the source of his purity and innocence. As the two get to know one another, she see this as less his being like a woman and more his being nothing like other men. But as they leave the cabaret together and walk the streets near the Tiergarten, she lays out her position, arguing, Raif says, as if “with a faceless enemy.”
“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 […] 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. […] It’s revolting, this arrogant male pride […] 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 with a smile…”
But Raif is not a wolf, as Maria learn. He’s a sad misanthrope who has, to his own surprise, found his life’s meaning. Granted, he’s only twenty-four, but Maria isn’t just a girlfriend—the Marias of literature never are. Raif has found his soul mate, in the truest sense of the phrase:
“Maria Puder had taught me I had a soul. And now, overcoming a habit of a lifetime, I could see a soul in her. Of course, everyone else in the world was similarly endowed. But most would come into this world and leave it without even knowing what they had missed. A soul only came forward when it found its twin, when it felt no need to rely on mere words to explain itself…It was only then that we truly began to live—live with our soul. At that moment, all doubts and shame could be set aside. All rules could be broken, as two souls joined in embrace. All my inhibitions had disappeared.”
It’s an idealized relationship. Most readers, particularly those from a patriarchal society like Turkey’s, will recognize it at once. In an interview, Sabahattin Ali’s daughter has credited this aspect of the novel for its surge in popularity. What man wouldn’t want a woman like Maria? And what woman wouldn’t want a man like Raif, “a man who could sweep me off my feet without resorting to brute strength…”? Maria says, “without asking anything of me, without controlling me, or degrading me, a man who could love me and walk by my side… In other words, a truly powerful man, a real man.” Raif may not appear to be such a man at first, but he’s a lot closer to it than most of us are.
Unfortunately, this still doesn’t answer the question of “Why now?” For all we know, it could be geographic. The Berlin of the twenties, of Auden and Isherwood and loose sexual mores, is well represented here, with references to painted men in women’s clothes, to wide, rain-soaked streets, to the parks and the zoos. It all comes off the page as a far more interesting place than the dusty streets and empty lots of Ankara. But there is a sociological aspect to the novel’s recent popularity, I believe, and to divorce it from the current zeitgeist in which Madonna in a Fur Coat has found that popularity is a mistake. As apolitical as it is, one must read it in the context of Turkey’s current political environment.
In the same interview I cited above, Ali’s daughter also suggests that Raif “reminds readers of forgotten things.” I think what she is talking about is nostalgia, and I think what she means by “forgotten things” is “things had and lost.” Herein lies the book’s power: its sense of nostalgia transcends the romantic and resonates with readers in a broader socio-political context. We’re talking about the nostalgia one feels for an irrevocably lost chance at happiness, and that is something many Turks can identify with today.
When I first arrived in Turkey in 2007, Erdoğan’s ruling government had been in power for four years, and people were already growing suspicious of his intentions. But the prosperity and progress his party had brought was evident. Tower cranes perched over the banks of the Bosphorus, relations with neighboring countries were good, and there was a growing respect for the religious class, which the secular elite had marginalized for decades. Negotiations for full accession into the EU began in 2005, almost twenty years after Turkey had submitted its application, and while a second Kurdish insurgency began in 2004, Erdoğan announced in 2012 that the Turkish government was intent on negotiating a peace solution. There was a sense that Turkey, whether you liked Erdoğan or not, was on the cusp.
Along the way, the country began to slip from crisis to more frequent crisis. With each one—a corruption scandal, mining disasters, the renewed Kurdish conflict, the Syrian Civil War, large scale protests, damning journalism—Erdoğan has responded like the authoritarian he is, justifying his and his party’s decisions based solely on the outcome of the general elections. He’s squashed dissent, stacked the judiciary, and is will be holding a referendum on a new constitution this spring, which would change Turkey into a presidential system and keep him in power until 2029. In a throwback to Sabahattin Ali’s time, he’s also jailed scores of journalists, not to mention the two co-chairs of Turkey’s fourth biggest political party. In the month and a half I was back in Istanbul last summer, there were two major terrorist attacks and an attempted coup. I couldn’t help looking back on my first few years in Turkey with an increasing wistfulness.
Literature should challenge our assumptions, not necessarily reaffirm them. But it can validate and illuminate our personal experiences as well. Five days after last summer’s coup attempt, my wife and I went to our friend Sema’s house for dinner. Sema had been one of the first fifty or so people to camp out in Gezi Park three years earlier, when the bulldozers began ripping up trees in the night. She’s also the one who, upon opening the door and seeing my book, offered me those congratulations. After dinner, we all sat in front of her TV and watched Erdoğan announce that he was instituting a state of emergency, which has given the government extra-constitutional powers and buoyed Erdoğan in his plans for reform. When my wife and I left Sema’s house, the mood was somber. Since then, the state of emergency has been extended twice.
I finished Madonna in a Fur Coat in the States a few days later. Raif’s family calls him back to Ankara. Maria spares herself the pain of being left behind by leaving first for Prague, where her mother lives. They part at the train station, and when I came to this scene I couldn’t help feeling like I’d only recently witnessed something like it. “I am leaving,” Maria tells Raif on the platform, “but I will come whenever you call for me.” Raif stares back in uncertainty, but Maria confirms his hopes: “I will go anywhere!” Raif later realizes that he will never see Maria again, but he is well aware of what he had, and what could have been. “For a brief while,” he says, “a woman had pulled me out of listless lethargy; she had taught me that I was a man, or rather, a human being; she had shown me that the world was not as absurd as I had previously thought and that I had the capacity for joy. But from the moment we lost touch, I lost the benefit of her influence.”
I left Turkey in 2015. My wife and I used to talk a lot about going back. While the political situation was tense then, the country was still only two years removed from Gezi, and many young Turks were re-energized by the 2015 General Election success of the left-wing People’s Democratic Party, which has drawn camparisons to Greece’s SYRIZA and Spain’s Podemos. The HDP, as it is known in Turkish, passed the 10% threshold required of a party to have its representatives in the Grand National Assembly, derailing AKP’s majority party hopes and imbuing a huge cross-section of the population with the hope that comes with fighting back. But shortly thereafter the country’s security situation took a nosedive and tourism dried up. MPs and governors have been removed from duty or thrown in jail, the attempted coup has given way to a counter-coup, a nightclub in my old neighborhood was the scene of a shooting massacre and the Turkish Lira is currently the worst performing of emerging-market currencies. It seems that the country is unravelling. Many people can’t help but feel that the Turkey they once knew, the Turkey that could have been, the Turkey I had moved to in 2007, is now as lost to them as Maria Puder is to Raif.
When we first meet Raif—old, embittered, raked over the coals—he often has his nose in a German novel. He’s the very picture of a man who has given up. Although isolated and besieged, the Turks who still stand in opposition to the AKP have yet, unlike Raif, to give up—or that’s what I keep telling myself. But damn, if it isn’t getting harder. Only fifty percent of the population needs to say “Yes” to this spring’s constitutional referendum and any hope of liberal democracy, let alone democracy in its most basic form, will be lost. I guess the one heartening thing about all of this is the continued popularity of a book, and a good one at that—for it seems to me that that which inspires a younger generation to read, en masse, a seventy year-old book is the same thing that inspires them to fill the streets.
Ralph Hubbell is an MFA candidate at Johns Hopkins University.