4* (book from NetGalley for an honest review)
“Life is a game that is only played once, and I lost. There is no second chance…”
I was reading on a blog I follow that 1.2 million English books have been translated into other languages since 1979, 6 times more than any other language (via bookwitty.com) – that might look as a really positive thing, but to me is actually very, very sad because it goes to show how English literature has a sort of monopoly and how so few foreign authors get translated into other languages, but especially into English. Trying to find more info on this aspect, I’ve stumbled upon an older article saying that only 1.5% of all the books published in the UK are translations (source). How sad is that? I feel I’ve been so lucky to learn fluent Italian, it’s incredible how many new authors I’ve got to read, authors or books that won’t get a chance on the English maker any time soon. And then you hear stuff like one of the guys from my reading club told me just last Thursday. He said he read Mahfouz’s Palace of desire and he was impressed but, I cite: “Mahfouz studied English literature, just like all those Russian authors, they studied English literature and then go on to write good books”. And I was hysteric on the inside. How, how in the world can you say such a thing?? How can you actually believe such a thing?? How can you put down an entire branch of literature as being nothing if it wasn’t for the English literature??? And especially how to say such a thing about the Russian literature, a masterpiece who is standing strong on its legs and is so magnificent in itself and nothing like what English literature has to offer?! Such contempt makes me cry. I am heartbroken and I feel sorry for such people who in they little world miss out on such a gorgeous world like the one of foreign authors.
And that’s how I ended up requesting Sabahattin Ali’s Madonna in a Fur Coat. My having fall pray to the word “translation” and the kindness of the people from Penguin who accepted my request made for my first ever read of a Turkish author. I do have some Orpham Pamuk on my to read list, but he is way too famous to compel me to read him, while this book seems more obscure – another word who worked its magic on me :p
The plot is quite simple and revolves around Raif Efendy. The narrator introduces us to the mysterious Raif Efendy, a translator of German in a small business. We slowing start on a journey of discovering who exactly is Raif Efendy. He seems an old person with a innocent side to him, a weak person yet somehow resolute in ploughing ahead no matter what. A person who lets others walk all over him while he would have the advantage of his knowledge and his financial gains to use against those set to dehumanize him. Yet he chooses not to. Only on his death bed does he resign and allows for his broken life story to be revealed.
I’d say this is pretty much build on the romantic recipe: a sad character, a bit of unrequited love, a tragic love story, there’s no life left after a tragic love. And while this is pretty much a recipe for failure in my books, surprisingly this novel was not. That’s because Ali is a clever guy, and by the time I’ve found out what was all about, he tricked me into feeling quite deeply about Raif. He really compelled me into caring very much about his character, about his life and the why behind his behaviour. I wanted to fight Raif’s battles for him, I wanted to shelter him and slap his family, if possible. I wanted Raif to be happy, to stand up for himself once and for all! Finding out about his lost love should have made me judges him very harsh, almost hate Raif, but by the end of the book I still wanted him to have had some happiness.(PS: I might have even shed a tear or two for him :p) : “For even the most wretched and simple-minded man could be a surprise, even a fool could have a soul whose torments were a constant source of amazement. Why are we so slow to see this, and why do we assume that it is the easiest thing in the world to know and judge another?”
The core story, his love for Maria, who he meets for the first time in a painting: Madonna in a fur coat, for then to actually materialize in flesh and blood and their whirlwind romance reminded me of Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Not only reminded me, but I felt it was a retelling, better said a platonic re-imagining of the story. First of all take the title: Madonna in a fur vs Venus in Furs. No doubt they are both in furs but is Venus Madonna? Well I believe so. Venus is the mother of the Romans through her son; she is the goddess of love, beauty but also sex and fertility. Madonna is a more chaste version of Venus. She is the mother of the people through her son, she is the imagine of love, acceptance, fertility even if Christianity stripped her of her carnal looks. And while in Venus in furs we have a more carnal approach, and the sensuality you can have from subjugation, in Madonna in a Fur Coat we have a more platonic approach, the devotion submission can bring, even without the promise of carnal satisfaction. Then Wanda is Maria or Maria is Wanda. Somehow they are both giving in to their male counterpart. Yet they are both rather cruel: Wanda both emotional and physical, Maria mostly emotionally. They are both resenting their male in their life for pushing them, while actually enjoying what they are doing. And we also have pretty much the same ending: the female character leaving the leading male character, with the only difference that Maria redeems herself, she has a motive that is not as selfish as Wanda’s; pretty much in the line with the more chaste, platonic, ‘Christian’ approach of Sabahattin Ali compared with Leopold von Sacher-Masoch
“The pain of losing something precious – be it happiness or material wealth – can be forgotten over time. But our missed opportunities never leave us, and every time they come back to haunt us, we ache. Or perhaps what haunts us is that nagging thought that things might have turned out differently. Because without that thought, we would put it down to fate and accept it.”
PS: As per my project to mention every time I encounter Romania in a book: on his way back from Berlin he passes through Romania, boarding a ship in Constanta for Turkey.
PPS: Just one more quote that I really love: “People can only get to know each other up to a point and then they make up the rest, until one day, seeing their mistake, they turn their backs on sadness and run away. Would this ever happen, if they stopped believing their dreams and made do with what was possible? If everyone accepted what was natural, then no one would suffer disappointment, no one would curse fate. We have every right to see our situation as pitiful, but we must confine our pity to ourselves. To pity another is to assume superiority and that is why we must never think we are superior to others, or that others are more unfortunate.”