On the lasting impact of Madonna in a Fur Coat
Since the failed coup of July 2016, Turkey’s president has been working overtime to silence his enemies and control what his supporters hear, see, and learn. He has purged the ministries and the military, jailed journalists, academics, writers and social justice activists in the thousands, taken evolution out of the school curriculum, brought in lessons on jihad, railed almost daily against secularism, pontificated just as often on the sacred obligations of mothers and wives, and suppressed every media outlet that has dared to challenge him. He has fired an untold number of civil servants, schoolteachers, academics and clerical workers—sometimes for nothing more than having kept an account with the wrong bank. In so doing, he has rendered these people unemployable: no one dares to hire them for fear of being tainted. Only those whose views mirror Erdoğan’s can speak openly about politics. The rest are warned to exercise extreme caution, most especially in restaurants, cafés, and taxis.
Publishers have been hard hit. The bravest have continued to champion work they value, even if there is a risk it might be viewed as criminal, obscene, or (worst of all) dangerous for young minds. Others have chosen the safety of self-censorship. Turkey is awash with writers whose words can no longer be seen or heard. But walk into any bookstore, and there is one slim volume you will never fail to find.
Its title is Madonna in a Fur Coat. First published in 1942 and set between the two world wars, it tells the story of Raif, sent by his father to Berlin to study soap manufacturing. But Raif’s secret passion is for literature and art. He spends his days with books and his evenings in art galleries, until one night, he happens on a painting called Madonna in a Fur Coat. He falls in love, first with the image, and then with the artist whose self-portrait it is.
As the two become friends, and then closer still, they bend and defy the rules of gender. More often than not, Maria takes the role of the man, setting the terms of their engagement, while Raif remains respectfully passive, until the moment arrives when Maria needs him to look after her. It is this shifting of roles that most perplexed the novel’s first readers. This reaction wasn’t unexpected, considering its author, Sabahattin Ali—almost everything he wrote, he wrote against the grain.