To outward appearances, Raif Efendi is the most nondescript of office drones. He toils away at his desk in Ankara, Turkey, translating documents from Turkish to German and German to Turkish. But in a dog-eared notebook, Raif has scrawled the story of his unlikely but passionate love affair with a Jewish German woman in Berlin many years earlier.
The discovery of this ordinary man’s extraordinary past is one of many surprises that await readers of “Madonna in a Fur Coat,” a profound, moving meditation on love and loss by Turkey’s Sabahattin Ali.
Ali’s book itself is a bit of a revelation — though not to readers in the author’s native land, where it was first published in 1943 and is enjoying a new surge of popularity. In a country of just under 80 million people, “Madonna in a Fur Coat” has sold more than 1 million copies over the past three years.
“It is read, loved and wept over by men and women of all ages, but most of all by young adults,” writes Maureen Freely, who, with Alexander Dawe, has produced this stylish English translation now coming to the United States. “And no one seems able to explain why.”
One theory is that Ali’s own biography makes his novel relevant to a new Turkish generation coping with the repressive rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: The novelist was a communist jailed repeatedly by the authoritarian Turkish regime of his day, which may also have had a hand in his murder in 1948.
Then again, there’s always a market for star-crossed lovers’ tales, especially one as convincingly, but gently, imparted as this. Certainly, the book’s message is not overtly political, even if its main characters, a younger Raif and his girlfriend, Maria Puder, are youthful citizens of World War I’s defeated empires. Rather, for Ali, Berlin in 1923 — with its cabarets, rooming houses, parks and art galleries — provides a particular setting for an eternal theme: doomed infatuation.
Raif arrives in Berlin on a mission from his father: to learn soapmaking from German experts. Maria’s true calling is art, but she scratches out a living singing in nightclubs. Neither is quite sure what he or she wants, except, eventually, each other. Their coming-together is a kind of magical accident, as Raif, wandering the art galleries when he should be concentrating on work, becomes fascinated with the self-portrait of a young woman wearing a fur coat, only to have the real-life subject, Maria, cross his path.
Though writing more than 70 years ago in a country where traditional sexual morality reigned, Ali casts his lovers’ relationship in strikingly modern terms. Maria is clearly in control, and Raif seems struck dumb as she muses that she “would rather fall in love with a woman.” She credits him with being “the first man who hasn’t interrupted me.”
Raif is willing to keep quiet through Maria’s daring conversation partly out of wonder and partly for the reward of her openhearted attention. “How desperately I need a confidant,” he says — more desperately, it seems, than physical love. That happens, too, of course, with baleful consequences, though the particular disaster it sets in motion is anything but foreseeable.
Back in Turkey after the affair, Raif marries, raises children, works. But he is reduced to “numb lethargy” by sorrow and unresolved mysteries left over from Berlin. “The pain of losing something precious — whether earthly happiness or material wealth — can be forgotten over time,” he says. “But our missed opportunities never leave us, and every time they come back to haunt us, we ache.”
Loosely autobiographical, “Madonna in a Fur Coat” derives from the author’s own sojourn in Berlin during the 1920s. Another source of its contemporary relevance is the fact that war and economic upheaval have sent a new generation of young men from the Levant to Berlin. Like Raif, they are bound to feel admiration for the ultramodern city, nostalgia for home and the need, which Raif felt, for that “one single person. But what if that person wasn’t really there?”
The cycles of history are the cycles of individual lives, accumulated and magnified. “I am just embarking on the journey that you are close to finishing,” a young office mate tells Raif, explaining his eagerness to read Raif’s notebook before the latter dies. “I want to understand people.”
It’s an ambitious and elusive goal. Through literature, though, we can almost reach it, as Sabahattin Ali has proved.
Charles Lane is a member of The Washington Post’s editorial board.
By Sabahattin Ali
Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe
Other. 200 pp. $15.95