BOOK REVIEWS

Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali

‘All I could feel was a terrible hollowness in my heart. A door had opened, promising the sublime, but then it had slammed shut, robbing my life of all hope and meaning. I felt as bereft as if I’d woken from the sweetest of dreams to face the pain of truth.’

Madonna in a Fur Coat surprised me in many ways.
I thought that it had been written in contemporary times, and was simply set in the early-ish 20th century rather and it was only after reading a good part of it that I discovered that Sabahattin Ali had died in 1947 and that this particular novel has just now been published in English.
The translators have done a marvellous job: I never did feel as if I was missing out on anything.
The style and themes tackled within this novel are very reminiscent of the ones James Baldwin addresses in Giovanni’s Room: the narrator is remembering a past relationship while incorporating an introspective evaluation of themselves.

‘Having never known such intimacy before, I was desperate to protect 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.’

It is a rather short novel, yet it is in some ways it didn’t feel like it given that it was very dense: it has no chapters whatsoever. Most of which has Raif, our narrator, giving the reader a continuous inner monologue.

‘I was only too aware that I still knew next to nothing about her. My judgements were formed of my own dreams and illusions. At the same time, I was absolutely sure that they would not deceive me.’

The reader can already predict the outcome of Raif’s days in Berlin: we are first introduced to a version of him that has obviously suffered some form of loss.

‘My distrust of others was so great, and so bitter, that I sometimes scared even myself. Everyone I met, i met with hostility. Everyone I encountered, I assumed to be full of malice.’

Raif’s loneliness is a constant throughout this novel; he is rather remote in some ways. His character seemed to feel really something only when with ‘his’ Madonna. I believe the author has done this intentionally. Raif is meant to be a ‘cursory’ character. We are only aware of his differences to others: he is an observer, a bystander. Yet, it is because of his sometimes aloof narration that made him intriguing.

‘Perhaps she’d been all I needed. I suppose that is what any of us need: one single person. But what if that person wasn’t really there? What if it all turned out to be a dream, a chimera, a delusion?’

His relationship with Maria was the heart of Madonna in a Fur Coat. A relationship that cannot be always defined; it is more than a friendship and more than a ‘romance’. Maria herself often struggles with this. Their immediate calamity to one another contributes in making their relationship intense.

“Where’s the tragedy in that? The essence of life is in solitude – wouldn’t you agree? All unions are built on falsehood. People can only get to know each other up to a point and then they make up the rest,”

This novel offers clever observations and piquant monologues. At times, both Raif and Maria, could feel a tad melodramatic. Their poignant reflections and comments were dimmed by their prolonged complaints.

‘The more I dwelt on my absurd anxieties and needless, groundless apprehensions, the more I castigated myself for letting my paranoia and wretched intuition darken what should have been the brightest days of my life, and the more I despaired.’

Nevertheless, it was a very well written and enjoyable read that attempted to analyse a relationship between two very bereft individuals; I especially appreciated their not wanting to condemn their relationship by defining it , a quite modern idea.

“Whereas friendship is constant and built on understanding. We can see where it started and know why it falls apart. But love gives no reasons. “

My rating: 4.25 of 5 stars

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