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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Madonna in a Fur Coat

Sabahattin Ali

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To purchase Madonna in a Fur Coat

Title: Madonna in a Fur Coat
Author: Sabahattin Ali
Genre: Novel
Written: 1943 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 200 pages
Original in: Turkish
Availability: Madonna in a Fur Coat - US
Madonna in a Fur Coat - UK
Madonna in a Fur Coat - Canada
Madonna in a Fur Coat - India
La Madone au manteau de fourrure - France
Die Madonna im Pelzmantel - Deutschland
La Madonna col cappotto di pelliccia - Italia
  • Turkish title: Kürk Mantolu Madonna
  • Translated by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe

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Our Assessment:

B+ : somewhat mawkish but some very fine bits, too

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 20/5/2016 Toby Lichtig
Irish Times . 13/8/2016 Eileen Battersby
NZZ . 10/1/2009 Angela Schader
The Times . 21/5/2016 Fiona Wilson
TLS . 8/6/2016 William Armstrong

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is above all a tale of young love and disenchantment, of missed opportunities and passionís elusive, flickering flame. It is a little reminiscent of Turgenevís First Love, with a hero every bit as gauche, and a twist every bit as bitter. (...) There are times in Aliís novel when you wish his hero could pull himself together and assert some boundaries" - Toby Lichtig, Financial Times

  • "Just when it seems a reprise of Wolfgang Koeppenís A Sad Affair (1934; 2003) is building up towards ironies Ali moves from tantalising banter being showered on a besotted suitor to agonising profundity in the face of lost opportunities. This is a most welcome first English translation of a cautionary tale certain to beguile." - Eileen Battersby, Irish Times

  • "Sicherlich müssen heutige Leser bereit sein, diese Liebesgeschichte weniger vom eigenen historischen Standort aus als im Blick auf die eingangs skizzierte Entstehungszeit zu bewerten. Trotz (und ebenso sehr wegen) der kühnen Behandlung der Geschlechterrollen stand das Buch aber auch quer zu den Emanzipationsbestrebungen in der jungen Türkischen Republik" - Angela Schader, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "It can perhaps be read as a parable of the Turkish experience in Europe, or of a nation struggling to Europeanize. More than anything it works as a poignant coming-of-age tale, drenched in disillusionment. The gap between hope and reality, art and ordinary life, has been explored in many other novels, but rarely with the unaffected simplicity of Madonna in a Fur Coat." - William Armstrong, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The first quarter of Madonna in a Fur Coat is narrated by a man who comes to work with, and to some extent befriends, Hatip zade Raif (whom he calls Raif Efendi). When they become colleagues Raif is working as a translator from the German, and is described as: "a simple man, and a very quiet one, too". He doesn't make much of an impression on the narrator:

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 ever to dare explore his soul, let alone express it. He had, I thought, no more life inside him than a plant.
       Of course, it turns out there's a bit more to Raif after all, a buried past that's revealed in a notebook that Raif asks the narrator to burn as he lies on his sickbed, explaining that: "It's no longer of any use !" Raif tells the narrator he can go ahead and read it, and it is this notebook that reveals the true Raif to him, and takes up almost the entire rest of the novel, save a very brief concluding page by the narrator.
       The notebook is dated 1933 but most of it focuses on Raif's time, ten years earlier, in Berlin. Raif: "had always been one of those quiet boys who preferred dreams to the real world". He lost himself in books, and for a while he hoped to become a painter but wasn't cut out for it. Taking advantage of the fact that living in inflation-ravaged Germany was very cheap for foreigners, his father sent him there to study the soap business, and Raif was pleased to have the opportunity to discover Europe and learn a new language.
       Still interested in the arts, he took advantage of being in Berlin to take in what he could -- and, after being there for a year, stumbled across a painting in an exhibition by new painters that had him transfixed. It is portrait -- a self-portrait, it turns out -- of a woman wearing a fur coat. He becomes obsessed by it, visiting the gallery daily to stare at it.
       When he's approached one day by someone who has noticed his repeated visits -- the artist, it turns out, though he's so dazed he doesn't make the connection -- he offers the poor (and false) explanation that the figure: "looks a lot like my mother". He can't let go of his obsession, and eventually tracks the artist, Maria Puder, down -- working in a nightclub. She's intrigued by the strange, inexperienced foreigner, and the two hit it off, in a way.
       There's is something of a role reversal, even beyond the obvious -- she an outgoing performer, putting herself on display (if not necessarily always enthusiastically) and he so terribly shy. It extends to how Maria describes them, suggesting she is: "like a man ... I'm like a man in many other ways, too", while finding: "There's something about you that makes me think of a young girl ...", and that he's: "As pure as a little girl". On the other hand, she appreciates that: "I can't see a trace of that awful male pride in you".
       Independent and seemingly sure of herself, Maria sets down the rules for their relationship, insisting:
This all ends the moment you want something from me. You can't ask me for anything ... Anything, do you hear ?
       Raif had "never known love", but now finds the woman of his dreams -- "All my life, I'd been waiting for her" -- only to have her insist that that they could only get so close. Yet that closeness does make for an intimate friendship and true bond -- even as Raif treads carefully, to avoid overstepping her set bounds
       For all her easygoing confidence, Maria is cautious -- but she doesn't merely string Raif along. Theirs is a true relationship -- and, it seems, there's a potential for more.
       Knowing what became of Raif, years later, the outcome is more or less known -- but Ali spins it out nicely, cruelly in how it gets there. Fate, more than blame, determines what happens -- though there are some steps Raif doesn't take that he perhaps could have (notably ten years later, when he writes this account and is finally able to fill in information he was previously missing). Raif's resignation back in Turkey -- already familiar to narrator and reader from early on in the novel, that had introduced the older Raif and his family (he does get married, and has a family -- though it is an anything but romantic situation) -- is perhaps deeper and darker than it need be, the romantic hero wallowing in what was lost, if not exactly broken by it.
       Madonna in a Fur Coat is a familiar youthful great-/lost-love tale, yet also offers some welcome differences, notably in the mercurial Maria-figure. (Raif, on the other hand, is maybe just a bit too unassertive, beginning to end.) Arguably too melodramatic, especially in its resolutions, there's nevertheless enough here otherwise for Ali to more or less get away with that. It's also an interesting piece of its times and places -- Depression-era Germany; a Turkey in the midst of Atatürk's transforming reforms -- and while these remain largely in the background, they filter through in the descriptions especially of family and social relationships. And, for example, Maria is areligious but also half-Jewish -- a fact Ali notes, but avoids making into a larger issue.
       Raif is an at-times irritating hardly-hero (though certainly a bit of the romantic ...), but with the agreeably contrasting figure of Maria and its interesting settings, Madonna in a Fur Coat is an intriguingly appealing spin on the usual sort of (lost-)love story.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 November 2017

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Madonna in a Fur Coat: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Turkish author Sabahattin Ali lived 1907 to 1948.

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© 2017 the complete review

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