“Either a timeless portrait of infatuation, or 160 pages of being a bit wet behind the ears” – Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali

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“…I was seized by an overwhelming desire to leap up, throw my arms around her, kiss her on the lips and let the tears flow. Never before had I felt such happiness. I could feel my heart opening up, as if for the first time … I was the richest man in the world.”

“…I imagined her lying in her bed, her hair spread out across her pillow, her breathing slow and deep, and it seemed to me that there could be no greater vision of happiness. All my life, I’d kept my heart closed … All my life, I’d been waiting for her … All my life, I’d shied away from human company … All my life, I’d been silent.”

The search for love; the urge to get jiggy with it – human imperatives do not get more fundamental. And for a period in our lives, these drivers can reach fever-pitch – that is to say, they can induce a kind of illness, madness even, which the more settled will instantly recognise. (Socrates, on finally losing his libido in old age, described the relief of “…no longer having to live my life whilst being chained to a maniac.”)

For prize jocks, the mating game is but extended playtime. For most of the rest, some degree of challenge awaits. There are others, though… that loner at college who had a poster of Edvard Munch’s The Scream on his bedroom wall; who played Don McLean’s Starry Starry Night on a loop. Our, ahem, ‘hero’ in Madonna in a Fur Coat, is just such a type. The story is of a young Turk (literal not figurative), in 1930s Berlin, who becomes infatuated with a cabaret dancer after seeing her portrait in a gallery. (Being reviewed here is a new translation of a novel by the Turk Ali, first published in 1943). Through happenstance, which we will brush over, he bumps into her, and thus a dance to win her affections ensues – one which she stalwartly blocks as she’s more ‘worldly wise’, making her extremely cautious about our hero’s interest. Thus the tension is meant to come from that cut and thrust, the ebb and flow as her defences to his advance are weakened, and then reinforced. Trouble is, as the excerpts above show, the prose is so ordinary, it cannot carry it off; the efforts to inject depth and complexity just bounce back. Beneath the generic existential malaise of the characters, there is hint of bi-polar or manic depressive tendencies, so violent are our Madonna’s mood swings, but this idea isn’t developed – consequently, the temptation is to find both of them annoying, rather than emblematic of fevered, first love.

Any Cop?: Madonna in a Fur Coat is a story about a tortured poet and a tart with a heart. Two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl…blah blah… And it is either a timeless portrait of infatuation, or 160 pages of being a bit wet behind the ears. For those though who have left behind the storms of youth, it’ll be hard to draw the former conclusion. Finally, spoiler alert – our hero does eventually get jiggy with it. And thank fuck for that.

 

Tamim Sadikali

 


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