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Venus in Furs

Posted on 17th June 2016 by Sally Campbell
Sabahattin Ali’s bestselling Turkish classic has finally been translated into English, over seventy years since publication. Bookseller Rory Macpherson investigates

Originally published in 1943, Madonna in a Fur Coat is a novel written by the Turkish writer Sabahattin Ali. Thanks to our friends at Penguin Books, this bestselling novel in its home country has now been translated into English for the first time in a glorious new hardback edition.

Ali led an extraordinary existence; although famous in Turkey for his writing and active during the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire, his was a life lived on the outside, including a vital stint in pre-Nazi Berlin, persecution by the Turkish state and imprisonment for supposedly libellous poetry.   Ultimately in 1948 – just seven years after Madonna saw print – Ali was assassinated whilst trying to cross the border to Bulgaria. To this day it is still unknown who exactly was responsible for his death but suspicions inevitably surround the government that so suppressed him.

The novel opens with a chance meeting between old friends, leading our down-at-heel narrator to an encounter with Raif Efendi, a man who will come to be a central figure in his life. Initially, Efendi cuts a relatively menial figure, beset by the thoughtless demands of employers and family. A chance discovery however opens up a doorway to Raif’s world of longing, his memories scorched by an impossible – but yet somehow inevitable – love affair with artist Maria Puder, an intense, on-off relationship which is first triggered by Raif stumbling upon her own self-portrait.

 “Her dark eyes were lost in thought, absently staring into the distance, drawing on a last wisp of hope as she searched for something that she was almost certain she would never find.”

There is something about the exactness with which Ali writes that makes this an effortless novel to read. The second half of the novel focuses squarely on Raif’s sense of isolation with Berlin – slipping steadily toward the horrors of the thirties – becoming something of a character in its own right. Despite the book hailing from the 1940s, the writing feels fresh and current; the complexity and relevance of its central relationship and their confused gender dynamic is also startling for a book of this relatively brief length.

As a depiction of a young man in search of identity - and the power of human companionship and love – I found the book a joy to read, with the final few pages living particularly long in the memory. The translation by English PEN president Maureen Freely and the multi-talented, Istanbul-based Alexander Dawe is probably revelatory.

Madonna in a Fur Coat is ultimately a fine, handsome acquisition for Penguin and again reflects the robust health of fiction in translation. Recent figures commissioned by the Man Booker International Prize have shown a near-doubling of the market over the past five years, tapping into a vast ocean of work new to the English language. Following last year’s The Time Regulation Institute by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar – translated by the same team – it feels as though the enormous potential of Turkish fiction is steadily being realised. 

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