A Turkish Love Story in Berlin
The Turkish writer Sabahattin Ali lived in Germany from 1928 to 1930. His novel Kürk Mantolu Madonna (Madonna in a Fur Coat) is a story of unrequited love set in 1920s Berlin, which shows a young man the way out of his loneliness. Volker Kaminski read the new German translation
This book possesses a genuine magic. Seldom has a modern novel given us a more beautiful and forceful portrait of unrequited love than Sabahattin Ali's Kürk Mantolu Madonna, published in Turkey in 1943. Raif's meeting with Maria, the "Madonna in a fur coat" of the title, and the relationship that develops between them, has all the criteria of a classic love story, yet never appears old-fashioned or kitsch.
With great narrative sleight of hand, Ali takes the reader step by step back to 1920s Berlin, where Raif, a twenty-four-year-old Turkish man, meets the love of his life.
Banished to a desk drawer
As we trace the young Raif's time in Berlin, we already know about this remarkable man's later life and death. Raif Efendi works as a translator in an Ankara bank in the early 1940s.
One day a young man is made his assistant at the bank. He – the narrator of the background story – gets to know Raif and develops an interest in the clever and educated but extremely tight-lipped character. He visits him at home, as Raif is often sick.
At home too, Raif lives in crowded conditions without a chance of creativity. He is surrounded and tyrannised by a large family, which he cares for with great self-sacrifice. At some point the narrator gets behind Raif's secret, hidden inside a black school exercise book in his desk. It contains the notes he took ten years previously about his life in Berlin. Shortly before Raif dies, the book ends up in the hands of the narrator, who reads it during a single night.
Books and culture as a route to Germany
Raif's father sends him to Berlin in the early 1920s to learn the trade of soap manufacturing. Yet he is more interested in the German language and culture than his work in the factory. He learns German from an army officer and lives in a pension that houses a colourful mixture of international guests.
Post-World War I Berlin is a place of inflation and shortages, but as a national of a country allied to Germany during the war, Raif is welcomed with respect.
Yet he is overly shy. His obsessive reserve, from which he has suffered since childhood, makes it even more difficult for him to make contact and open up to other people far from home. It is only via the detour of culture, through literature and art, that he comes closer to Berlin and its inhabitants.
Almost a happy ending
On one of his long walks through the city, he comes across Maria Puder's self-portrait "Madonna in a fur coat" in a gallery. Raif is virtually struck down, instantly bewitched by the portrait of a melancholy young woman. He feels he knows the subject, and he could not be happier when he one day meets the artist herself and she seems open to his cautious advances.
It would be going too far to describe all the tos and fros that make up the relationship between Raif and Maria. Maria sings and plays violin in a nightclub, meeting Raif by day, but she soon realises she doesn't love him. The young man seems too shy, too under-confident for her in his complete devotion. They split up several times, yet the couple come together again and again.
Maria, two years older than Raif, is a thoughtful, clever character, not appearing heartless or cold. Yet despite her feelings for Raif, she cannot help the fact that she doesn't love him. The events accompanying this slowly unfolding love story are narrated with skill; the protagonists' inner lives, especially Raif's feelings, are described with empathy and accuracy, the reader's interest never waning.
Set before the backdrop of 1920s Berlin with its nightclubs, restaurants, the Romanisches Café and other legendary sites, the story spans six months, almost culminating in a happy ending but then breaking off abruptly.
Reading as awakening
Yet the story is by no means over when Raif leaves Germany. It is back in Turkey that his actual tragedy begins. After his father's death he works on the family olive grove. His family tricks him out of his inheritance, yet he hopes desperately to bring Maria over as soon as possible.
Since his relationship with Maria, Raif knows what feelings he is capable of. The loneliness and abandonment that have always tortured him were broken down in those few months with Maria. Yet all attempts to bring Maria to Turkey and lead a new life with her are in vain.
The reader has one consolation: the narrator. For him, meeting Raif is a crucial turning point in his young life. Reading the notes, he realises that he has been thinking too little of his fellow men, underestimating them. "I have never before perceived the presence of another person so consciously and vividly within me. From now on he will be forever by my side."
The Swiss publishing house Dörlemann has taken on the thankful task of republishing this relatively unknown Turkish author in German. Ute Birgi's unobtrusive yet all the more intense translation brings to bear Ali's clear, calm and psychologically precise language. A wonderful book that gives a thrilling description of the plight of a modern man living in an anonymous world with neither home nor roots, who tries to open up to life by the side of another.
© Qantara.de 2009
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire