I first saw Sabahattin Ali’s book on a shelf in a bookshop in Coventry. I had known that it was in the process of being translated. By Maureen Freely no less. By chance, I had listened to a literary programme on radio 4 in which the author’s daughter, Filiz Ali, a prominent musicologist and pianist in her own right, was being interviewed about her late father’s books at her home in Istanbul. She had talked about how after so many years, since 1943 in fact, this book had been read by millions, translated into many languages but had not yet been translated into English. I was ecstatic. Now I would have the chance to read the English version as well. I had been waiting eagerly for it ever since but lately had forgotten all about it. So it was a delightful sighting for me. The book was a hardback. Madonna in a Fur Coat…Sabahattin Ali written across an abstract design. I loved the colours of the sleeved cover yet this cover doesn’t do the story justice I commented unnecessarily. I was ashamed that, that had been my first reaction. My husband and I, we have our own exclusive ‘just us’ book club and this book had been one of the first books we had read several years ago. We had discussed the novel extensively. We remembered everything about it. We had both loved it. To my suprise he agreed. It is a lovely cover he said but not Sabahattin Ali at all. It is difficult to explain our reaction as the Turkish publications all have the author’s photos on them. I had never felt strongly about a cover before..”Never judge a book by its cover” was certainly a motto of mine . Always had been.
Then several weeks later when in London, we saw it. As we walked from one platform to another through the tiled tunnels of the London underground, a big poster made us stop in our tracks. There it was. The paperback being advertised. The cover…Just right ..Just perfect. There they were. Raif and Maria Puder.
Madonna in a Fur Coat is one of the novels written by the Turkish author and poet Sabahattin Ali. It is his first novel to be translated into English. Sabahattin Ali was born in 1907 and was killed for his dissident writings in which he critised the authoritarian one party regime of the time. He was only forty one years old. Convicted allegedly of promoting communist propaganda to his students, he had earlier been removed from his teaching post and had been imprisoned for a length of time, freed and re-imprisoned again this time being accused of insulting Ataturk. He was killed as he tried to leave Turkey for Europe secretly having been denied a passport. He had been the target of a hate campaign and had started to fear for his life. Although a man was supposed to have confessed to his killing, saying that Ali had insulted his patriotism, it is widely believed that he was captured, tortured and killed by the secret service. His body was recovered months later. His daughter Filiz was eleven years old when her father died.
The book starts off with a narrator.Through him we meet Raif, his new collegue at work.When Raif is bedridden nearing death, he asks his ‘new friend’ to destroy a notebook that he has hidden in his desk drawer at work. It is in fact a kind of journal which takes us back to Raif’s stay in 1920s Berlin and to Maria Puder, the artist whose self-portrait Madonna in Fur Coat changes Raif forever. What appears as a worn exercise book ends up being the testament of a passionate love story, the intensity of which takes us and the the narrator by suprise.
“Never judge a book by its cover”…as the sentiment goes.
A must read….Beautifully written.