Last year a NYU sophomore visiting Barcelona with her parents from Istanbul asked me if I read any Turkish novels. I answered that I only read some contemporary novels and not much of the classics since I find their plots too simple and mainly chauvinistic to say the least.
Then I asked her if there was anything she recommended. To my surprise she said she liked Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali. To be frank I had never heard of this book when I was at school age. It was not in a list of books we were to read as Ali was considered a dissident writer of the state. But nowadays it is a bestseller, has been turned into a successful play and has been played in theaters in Turkey recently. I ended up buying the book, a very thin one at that, one which in my opinion never at his day and age would ever get printed anywhere except perhaps at a blog post like this one.
During this first day of staying at home I read this book in a couple of hours. In a nutshell it is a guy working in a firm in Ankara, Turkey who starts observing Raif Efendi, an older man who is a translator from German with whom he shares his office, and one day has to visit Raif at his home to observe his miserable life at a home he shares with his extended family none of whom respect him. Sick as Raif is and stays at home, his diary is found by the author who for the remainder of the book reads this very diary which mainly focuses on Raif’s days in Berlin in the 1920s as a student.
Raif goes to Berlin, learns German, visits a museum and sees an artwork in a contemporary art exhibition, a Self-Portrait by an artist depicting a woman in a fur coat. He is greatly affected by it, and reads that a critic was reminded of the Madonna delle Arpie by Andrea del Sarto when looking at it. As anybody who is very touched by art, a specific piece of art, he obsesses over it, just like he obsesses over the very painter of the work, Maria Puder, a night club singer who had painted herself. A Maria herself, but more of the Magdalene vein as far as her night-time job goes, she painted a Maria, a self-portrait, Madonna-like from her day-job the artist, the creator.
So, what is new? Madonna or whore? Men’s categorization of women since time immemorial. You are either a Madonna or a whore. But what is Maria Puder? Our guy loves her, or rather obsesses over her. They start spending time together going to museums, galleries, the opera. Everything we are told about her is from his limited point of view who paints a picture of her as problematic, hysterical, depressive. I will have to state to my great surprise though, that the writer has Maria deliver great speeches vis-à-vis what is expected for women and how unfair it all is: How men with their “male arrogant pride” treat and ill-treat women, that women are expected to be passive. And how she says she finds it revolting that women “preferred to be objects of desire and act like dolls”, especially for that time period. I wondered if the writer wanted to convey the idea that this unfair treatment of women and unjust expectations from women were the very cause of her unhappiness but I am not sure.
In any case, they end up having sex, or we presume they do. The next day they’re not happy. Long story short, they eventually separate, Raif goes back to Turkey, never has the courage to tell anyone, has a miserable life, never standing up to anything, saying, for ten years that he will get back to her. It gets really unbelievable towards the end and I don't want to recount it here.
I don’t know how this has been turned into a play especially one that contemporary audiences might like. I believe in going in all for love. The way I see it is, if the day after love, you don’t want to have more love, that means it was bad and you are not meant to be together. If he is not pursuing you, or vice versa, that person is not for you. The issue in the book is not cultural differences, like the fact that she is a foreigner or that she is night club singer, I think it is about an unhealthy desire, an objectification of a woman that is dream-like and in reality the relationship doesn't work because of that. Raif would rather hold on to a fantasy, a life-long obsession of a woman rather than get on and make passionate love to her.
I thought about this: Is it that I can't listen to lovers not being together because of societal constraints in times past, because now we are free to love whomever we want, and it is so much in the past that we have to move on? And I realize no. One of the most beautiful stories I ever read in The New Yorker was Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx, and it has been made in to a fantastic film too, and it is about love and passion and the impossibility of living the way you want to. Both the story and the film is beautiful, touching, haunting. This story of Maria and Raif never is that. It is pure and simple a story of a woman from the lens of the Madonna-Whore dichotomy. As I am sick of women seen as objects of desire, just like artwork, that you covet and desire to see and own and keep on a pedestal, ever there for your visual consumption, but only when you want to.
The one thing which I think is good about the book, and the only thing going in fact, is that it makes you curious. I just wanted to finish it. It is easy language for sure, but it keeps you going till the end. But other than that I hope young women do notice that what this man had for Maria was not love. I would rather read the story of Maria, from her point of view. What happened really? Enough of this men objectifying women, making you look like empty creatures, making you think this man loved this woman. Instead there are supremely talented, serious and at the same time unbelievably funny women, fun people, out there. Please read, watch and listen to stories by them.