Book Review: Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali

‘Men and women have such a hard time understanding what we want from each other, and our emotions are so foggy we hardly know what we are doing. We get lost in the current. I don’t want that. If I have to do things thaf seem to me to be unnecessary and unsatisfying, I end up hating myself… But what I hate most is women always having to be passive… Why? Why we are always the ones running away and you are the ones chasing after us? Why is it always that we surrender and you take the spoils? Why is it that in the way you beg, there is dominance, and pity in the way we refuse?’⁣⁣

I got this book in Istanbul while I was there in February. I found it proper to read a book by a Turkish author while I was in Turkey. Madonna in a Fur Coat was recommended by many people, and I picked this beautiful Penguin edition.

Madonna in a Fur Coat begins with a chapter narrated by a man in 1930s Turkey who just lost his job. He then accepted a job offer from an old friend he disliked and was put in a room with a sickly middle-aged man name Raif Bey. Raif was the sort of person, according to the narrator, that made us ask ourselves: ‘What do they live for? What do they believe? What logic compels them to keep breathing?’. As the weeks went by, the narrator grew more curious about Raif’s life. Especially after he saw Raif showed emotion after their boss (his old friend) told him off. Raif drew a sketch of their boss’s face showing his ugly face in rage. After seeing that Raif possesses something so humane, our narrator became a bit obsessed with Raif and on some occasion visited Raif’s home.

He was so surprised to see that Raif’s family and relatives treated him like shit. They demanded so much from him and yet he was the last person they thought they should have respected. But just like how he was treated at work, Raif took everything without a single complaint. On his death bed, Raif asked our narrator to burn a book he kept in his drawer at the office. Out of curiosity and compassion, he begged Raif to be permitted to read the book. And thus began our story, narrated by Raif himself, about his days in Berlin when he met Maria Puder, his Madonna in a fur coat.

Sabahattin Ali is said to refuse traditional gender roles and in his book, it was clear that Raif is the woman and Maria is the man. Raif fell in love with Maria after he saw a painting of her in a fur coat hanged in a gallery in Berlin. In their relationship, Maria is the one who led, and Raif is the one who followed without much demand. Maria hated men and was so sure that men always wanted to own a woman when they were in a relationship. Basically, Maria was a feminist that hated male domination and felt trapped in a world where women were the one who always took the blame. She didn’t want to fall in love with Raif and always suspected that Raif would turn into the kind of men she hated.

Raif’s naivety and simple dedication often drove me crazy. Maria’s stubborn and strong prejudice also drove me crazy. But I get why this book still in best-seller in Turkey after 70 years. Women can be strong and the one who decides what kind of relationship she wants to be in (or if she doesn’t even want one and just wants some casual relationships). Men can be submissive and hopeless and weak when it comes to love. They can be soft and mellow. These reversed roles are empowering in some sense.

Looking at Maria and Raif’s relationship, I thought about my own past relationships. I think women nowadays are more in charge of relationships than they were 50 years ago. But I also think that submission is not a sign of weakness coming from either men or women. I think to love someone blindly and veraciously is beautiful but um… to some extent. I am now in the age when loving someone means loving someone responsibly (LOL).

Madonna in a Fur Coat

This edition of Madonna in a Fur Coat is published by Penguin.

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