Barbaros Altug on Turkish author Sabahattin Ali’s celebrated Berlin novel…
“The sky was overcast and it was spitting rain. In the low clouds I could see the crimson reflection of the city’s lights. I had arrived at a long, wide avenue called Kurfürstendamm. Here the entire sky was illuminated, casting an orange light on the rain as it fell. The street was lined with casinos, theatres and cinemas. Crowds were strolling up and down, oblivious to the rain. I joined the procession, as my mind ran in circles. It was almost as if I were trying to free myself of a thought that had taken me captive. I read every sign I passed, and every illuminated advertisement. Over and over, I walked the full length of the avenue, which extends for several kilometres. Then I turned right and made for Wittenberg Square. Here I found a group of young men dressed in red boots whose faces were painted like women. They were loitering on the pavement outside a large store named KaDeWe, flashing flirtatious looks at the people passing by.”
When the writer of these lines, a young man from Turkey named Sabahattin Ali, arrived in Berlin between the World Wars, he had no idea that he would write a novel about his unforgettable love with a German lady; and certainly not one that would, many years after his tragic death, become one of the most read and celebrated classics of Turkish literature.
Ali arrived in the German capital in 1928 to be educated as a teacher for the young Turkish Republic, founded only a couple of years before. During the two years that he lived in Berlin and Potsdam, Ali learned German and also began to read Russian classics (in German) for the first time. Like much of the demimonde at this time, he wrote poems, visited cafes and bars, and enjoyed the city’s museums and galleries, all the time missing Turkey and its warm-hearted people.
“…the streets here are cleaner than our homes, everywhere you see triumphal arches but they lack the wrecked walls of our old citadels, and they do not have the bridge that lays down there,” he wrote in one of his poems.
The novel he wrote about the city, Madonna in a Fur Coat is based on his own life experiences. Like Ali, its protagonist Raif Bey is also in his early twenties and is sent to Berlin in the 1920s by his father, but to learn a different craft—that of making soap. But Raif is more interested in the German language and culture than in the work that he was supposed to do in Berlin: “For now I was slowly learning to read properly in German and this gave me great pleasure,“ he says. “I read all of the great Turgenev’s stories in one sitting.”
Raif learns German intensively from a military officer and lives in a guesthouse in Lützow Street that accommodates a mix of international guests. He visits the Alte Nationalgalerie and sees historic masterpieces for the first time in his life, as well as smaller galleries to view the works of younger artists.
During one of these gallery jaunts, on a dark and rainy November day, Raif enters a gallery near Nollendorf Platz, where he discovers a self portrait by a painter named Maria Puder. He falls in love with the person in the portrait and returns to the gallery night after night.
“I quickened my steps as I walked the short distance to Nollendorf Square. Now I knew where I was going. I was going to the spot where, the night before, at precisely this time, I had met the Madonna in a Fur Coat.”
He sees echoes in the portrait of some of the characters from the books he has read: Nihal from Halit Ziya Uşaklıgil’s classic Forbidden Love, Cleopatra, even the Prophet Muhammad’s mother Amine Hatun are all for him merged into the face of Maria Puder. But most of all the portrait mostly resembles Andrea del Sarto’s depiction of the Mother Mary in his Madonna delle Arpie, hence the title of the novel.
Puder turns out to be a singer in a cabaret nightclub called Atlantic, a fictitious place not far from Nollendorf Platz. She is two years older than Raif, and although his love for her grows more intense as he gets to know her, it is not reciprocated. He is too shy, too lacking in self-confidence. Like Ali himself, Raif is portrayed as a fragile, sentimental character, who for his time was very far from the stereotypical ‘strong man’ and in fact something of an outcast of society for not being “manly” enough:
“She searched my face.
‘You are alone in Berlin, right?’ ‘
What do you mean?’
‘I mean … alone … with no one else … spiritually alone … How can I put it … you have such an air about you that …’
‘I understand … I am completely alone … But not just in Berlin … alone in all of the world … since I was a child …’
Raif finds a familiar warmth in Maria, perhaps because she doesn’t look like a typical German but also because she reminds him of the women he knows from his homeland.
“I asked: ‘Are you originally German?’
“Yes, why do you ask?”
“You aren’t blonde and you haven’t got blue eyes.”
“True enough.” Again, she almost smiled, but this time I sensed some hesitation. ‘My father was Jewish,’ she said.
“I hope you don’t mind my asking. Are you an enemy of the Jews?”
Despite their amorous imbalance, Raif and Maria see more and more of each other, wandering around Berlin and Potsdam, visiting the Grunewald forest, hanging out in Weissensee cafes during the daytime.
“Come on, we can go to a café not far from here. It’s a wonderful place. Full of mad souls.”
The café was normally frequented by artists, but after eleven o’clock would fill up with rich women hunting younger men, and I’d heard that this was when gigolos of all different ages would come and seek their fortunes.”
They also visited clubs at night after Maria was done singing at the Atlantic:
“Europa, opposite the Anhalter train station. This was a far cry from the small and intimate Atlantic. As far as the eye could see, there were hundreds of couples swirling around a massive dance floor.”
After a dreamlike period Maria becomes sick and has to spend time in the Charité Hospital. This is when Raif realises that a life without her will be meaningless and empty.
“It was during that long night, as I paced the hospital’s high stone walls, that I came to appreciate just how much I loved Maria Puder and how desperately I was attached to her; I thought about nothing but her.
And that night I also came to understand how hollow life would be without her. As hollow as a walnut shell, tossed by the winds.”
Raif’s Berlin days are cut short by the news that his father is dying, and just like Sabahattin Ali himself he has to return back to Turkey after two years; both had imagined they were to stay longer.
The real tragedy starts after the Germany years for both Raif Bey and Sabahattin Ali. While Raif lives in desperate hope of bringing Maria to Turkey, years pass by and this never happens. Sabahattin Ali, on the other hand, was imprisoned several times after his return to Turkey, both for being a dissident as well as for allegedly insulting Ataturk.
In between, he carved out a career as a poet and a writer of short stories and novels about ordinary people and their dreams and tragedies. He started publishing Madonna in a Fur Coat years later, between 1940-1941, initially by way of instalments in a daily newspaper during his never-ending military service. It was eventually published as a book in 1943.
When Ali returned back from Germany with leftist ideals after he saw there how racism can ruin a country, he started to write not only literature but political articles criticising the pressure put on people during one party government in Turkey, and on how the rotten system was poisoned by power and corruption.
During an anti-communist raid in 1946, the magazine Ali had been publishing—a popular satirical review called Marco Pasha—was raided, and he was arrested and put into prison again in 1946. Released in 1947, he was arrested and imprisoned yet again in December of the same year for publishing Glass Palace. Although it was an allegorical story about 1919-1945 Germany and how the German nation was ruined by the German financial capitalists, the one party government of Turkey considered it a threat to its own power.
Ali never stopped dreaming of going back to Europe, and it was during an attempt to cross the border between Turkey and Bulgaria—incidentally where Ali was born in 1907 when it was a part of the Ottoman Empire—in 1948 that he was beaten to death by the driver of the truck smuggling him. Confirmed in 1949 by forensics, his death was reported by Turkish newspapers with a kind of strange joy, as another “enemy of the state” had been removed.
The remainder of Ali’s unpublished works, three novels in total, several poems and short stories, were only published many years after his death in Turkey. When he was rediscovered by new generations he immediately became a cult figure, including throughout the Soviet Bloc, and Madonna in a Fur Coat became a bestseller for several years in a row.
The book was recommended in schools, and quotes from the novel have in recent years became a social media sensation; although Ali created Raif Bey and Maria Puder decades ago, their understanding of love and relationships have found plenty of resonance amongst contemporary readers.
“‘If a person truly has the ability to love, then he can never monopolise his beloved. And neither can his beloved monopolise him.“
One of the most shared quotes among younger generations is still:
“The more he spreads his love, the more he adores his one and only true love. When love spreads, it does not diminish.“
And decades ago Ali was discussing the inequality of women and men in life that millennials in particular have found fascinating:
“…women always having to be passive … Why? Why are we 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 even in the way you beg, there is dominance, and pity in the way we refuse?”
Maria Puder’s struggle and not accepting the norms of the society were still giving inspiration to women in Ali’s own country fifty, sixty years after the book was published. Sabahattin Ali‘s body has never been given to his family and the whereabouts of his grave—if one exists—is still unknown. His books are published by several publishers in Turkey and still selling thousands of copies every month.