[Marxism] A Once-Forgotten Novel Unites Turkish Readers in Troubled Times

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Feb 27 08:47:32 MST 2017

NY Times, Feb. 27 2017
A Once-Forgotten Novel Unites Turkish Readers in Troubled Times

ISTANBUL — A young Turkish man arrives in 1920s Berlin. Ignoring his 
business of soap manufacturing, he spends his days learning German and 
his nights reading books — especially the Russians, and especially 
Turgenev. He explores the city’s parks, its wide streets, its museums 
and art galleries. He is looking, as he put it, for something, “to sweep 
me off my feet.”

He finds it one evening at a gallery, where he stands transfixed in 
front of a painting of a young woman dressed in a fur coat. Day after 
day he returns to stare at the painting. One evening, drunk and out on 
the town, he sees the woman in the flesh. Her name is Maria, and the 
life of the young man, Raif, is transformed.

“All my life, I’d kept my heart closed,” Raif said. “I had never known 
love. But now, all at once, the doors had flown open.”

That is the basis of “Madonna in a Fur Coat,” a once-forgotten Turkish 
novel written nearly 75 years ago that has improbably become a best 
seller, outselling, these days, even Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate.

Published in 1943 and written by Sabahattin Ali, a leftist intellectual 
jailed for his political writings (much like his contemporaries under 
today’s government), the book’s newfound success has become a rare point 
of common cultural experience for a deeply polarized country.

“It is read, loved and wept over by men and women of all ages, but most 
of all by young adults,” Maureen Freely, who translated the book for the 
first time into English last year (with Alexander Dawe), wrote in The 
Guardian. “And no one seems able to explain quite why.”

If he were alive today, Mr. Ali would be shocked to see “Madonna” had 
become a best seller, his daughter, Filiz Ali, 79, said in a recent 
interview at her Istanbul apartment. (The book has sold nearly a million 
copies over the last three years, according to the publisher, YKY, and 
was recently published in English as a Penguin Classic.)

“My father didn’t really give so much importance to this book,” she 
said. “And his friends told him, ‘Sabahattin, you shouldn’t have written 
such a romantic book. It doesn’t look good on your reputation.’”

An erudite man of letters during the early years of the Turkish 
republic, and a devoted Communist, Mr. Ali wrote novels, stories, poems 
and articles that repeatedly got him thrown into jail. The parallels 
between what he endured as a dissident intellectual and the ordeals 
faced by modern Turkish writers arrested for speaking out against the 
current Islamist government help explain Mr. Ali’s newfound popularity 
among the Turkish public.

“The same things are repeating, much worse,” said Ms. Ali, referring to 
the current arrests of journalists speaking out against the current 
Islamist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Mr. Ali was murdered under suspicious circumstances in 1948, at age 41, 
at a lonely outpost near the Bulgarian border as he tried to flee to Europe.

The death of Mr. Ali remains, almost 70 years later, as mysterious as 
his newfound popularity. A smuggler who was “helping” Mr. Ali cross the 
border admitted to his murder and did a short stint in prison. But it is 
widely suspected, his daughter said, that he was actually killed by 
state security agents after he was interrogated. She believes that 
somewhere deep in government archives the truth could be found.

With the success of “Madonna,” Mr. Ali is now the rare literary figure 
who is embraced with equal ardor by teenage girls and intellectuals.

Sabri Gurses, a Turkish poet and novelist, said he was moved when he 
learned that Mr. Ali was carrying a German translation of Alexander 
Pushkin’s novel in verse, “Eugene Onegin,” when he was killed. Nowadays, 
he said, when he sees young people carrying “Madonna” on the streets of 
Istanbul he imagines many of them feel for Mr. Ali what the Russian 
poet, Mikhail Lermontov, famously wrote about Pushkin: “He rose against 
the world’s opinion, and as a hero, lone he fell.”

The sudden success of “Madonna” — attributed to word of mouth, an 
interest by some Turkish teachers and social media — has become an 
opportunity for Ms. Ali, late in her life, to help reacquaint Turkish 
readers with her father. She has spoken at schools and conferences to 
promote the book, and says she often meets young readers, including 
boys, who come to her with tears in her eyes.

“They want a love like this,” she said.

“Madonna,” she said, is part autobiographical, as Mr. Ali spent time as 
a young man in Berlin in the 1920s. A letter to a friend that surfaced 
later revealed he had a friendship there with a woman, Maria Pruder, 
which inspired the novel. In the book, Maria was half Jewish, a 
revelation that foreshadows what was to come in Germany. Ms. Ali said 
her family has never tried to track down the real Maria or her family.

“Maybe she died in one of the death camps,” she said.

In a country so deeply polarized between secularists and Islamists, 
between urban elites and the rural poor, “Madonna” and the legacy of Mr. 
Ali have become something to unite over, at least for those who love books.

Sevengul Sonmez, an editor and literary historian, said that Turkish 
readers who love “Romeo and Juliet” are “now reading Maria and Raif, as 
the modern impossible love story.”

“We needed a classic as well,” she said. “I think that readers have 
needed, for a long time, a book they could love unanimously. ‘Madonna in 
a Fur Coat’ finally emerged as the common ground.”

If one can glean insights into a society from the books its citizens 
read, then one thing the popularity of “Madonna” may underscore about 
Turkey is the eagerness, among the country’s youth, to break free of the 
traditional gender roles and machismo pushed by Turkey’s leader, Mr. 

In the book, gender stereotypes are upended: Raif comes off as 
vulnerable and emotional, while Maria exudes independence and a lack of 
sentimentality for matters of the heart.

Kaya Genc, a young Turkish novelist and writer, quoted Susan Sontag, the 
critic, when asked about “Madonna’s” resonance: “What is most beautiful 
in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine 
women is something masculine.”

“This applies perfectly to Sabahattin Ali’s ‘Madonna in a Fur Coat,’” he 

Back in her apartment, Ms. Ali recalled memories of her father, calling 
him a man with a quick wit who loved music and was devoted to his 
family, who did everything with her and her mother, and who in his 
younger years was a hopeless romantic.

“He fell in love all the time when he was young,” she said.

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