Madonna in a Fur Coat

by Sabahattin Ali

The bestselling Turkish classic of love and longing in a changing world. Available in English for the first time.

About the author

Sabahattin Ali was one of the most influential Turkish writers of the twentieth century. A teacher, translator, journalist and dedicated socialist, he owned and edited a popular weekly newspaper, which became a target of government censorship because of its political and satirical editorials. He was imprisoned more than once for his political views and writings, and eventually assassinated in 1948 while allegedly secretly crossing the border to Bulgaria. Why, where, and by whom he was murdered, and where he was buried, remains a mystery.

Madonna in a Fur Coat

The door to the sickroom opened and out came the doctor with Nurettin behind him. For all his nonchalance, he still looked disgruntled.

‘Don’t leave his side,’ said the doctor. ‘And if he has another seizure, give him one of those injections.’

Nurettin Bey frowned. ‘Is he in danger?’

The doctor said what all doctors say in such circumstances. ‘It’s hard to say.’

To avoid further questions, and, even more, to save himself from being harassed by the invalid’s wife, he quickly donned his coat and hat; taking the three silver liras from Nurettin Bey, he grimaced and left the house.

Slowly I approached the sickroom door. I peered inside. Mihriye Hanım and Necla were standing over Raif Efendi, watching him with apprehension. He had his eyes closed. When the young girl caught sight of me, she beckoned me over. What both she and her mother wanted, it seemed, was to see how I responded when I saw my friend. Seeing that, I did everything in my power to keep myself under control. I nodded affably, as if I were fine with what I saw. Then I turned to my left. There they were, huddled together. I forced a smile. ‘There’s nothing to fear, most probably. With God’s help, he’ll pull through.’

My friend opened his eyes a crack. For a moment he looked at me, but without recognition. Then, with great effort, he turned to his wife and daughter. He whispered a few words that made no sense to me. Screwing up his face, he tried to point at something.

Necla went over to him. ‘Do you need something, dear father?’

‘Go on, now. Go on outside for a while.’ His voice was weak and hoarse.

Mihriye Hanım gestured for me to leave with her and the girl. But when the patient saw her doing this, he reached and grabbed my wrist, and said: ‘You stay here!’

His wife and daughter seemed surprised. ‘Be careful, dear father! Keep your arms under the covers!’

Raif Efendi nodded hastily, as if to say, ‘I know! I know!’ Then once again, he gestured for them to leave.

Then he pointed at the package that I was still holding, even though I’d forgotten all about it. ‘Did you bring everything?’

At first I just looked at him. I didn’t understand what he meant. Was I perhaps wondering why he was making so much of these things? My friend was still staring at me, his eyes bright with anxiety.

Only then did I remember the famous black notebook. I hadn’t even bothered to open it up, or wonder about its contents. It had never occurred to me that Raif Efendi might own such a thing.

Tearing open the package, I left the towel and the other bits on a chair behind the door. Picking up the notebook, I took it over to Raif Efendi. ‘Is this what you wanted?’

He nodded.

Slowly I leafed through it, as curiosity overtook me. The large and disordered scrawl across its ruled pages spoke of a great haste. I glanced at the first page. There was no title. On the right there was a date: 20 June 1933. Just below it was this line: ‘Something strange happened to me yesterday, and it swept me back to that time I thought I’d left behind for ever . . .’

I did not read what followed. Raif Efendi had again taken his arm out from under the blankets to take my hand. ‘Don’t read it!’ he said. Nodding towards the other side of the room, he whispered: ‘Throw it in there!’

I turned to look. Behind a sheet of mica I saw the glowing red eyes of a stove.

‘You want me to burn it?’

‘Yes!’

I was more curious than ever. I could not, would not, let my hands destroy Raif Efendi’s notebook.

‘What good would that do, Raif Bey?’ I said instead. ‘Wouldn’t it be a shame? What would be the point of destroying a notebook that served as your friend and companion over many long years?’

‘It no longer serves any purpose!’ he said, and again he nodded towards the stove. ‘It’s no longer of any use!’

I could see then that there was no talking him out of it. He had, I imagined, poured the soul he’d hidden from us all into these pages, and now he wanted to take it with him.

I looked at this man who wished to leave nothing of himself behind, who, even as he moved towards death, wished to take his loneliness with him. And I wished him everlasting mercy. My own bond with him would last just as long.

‘I understand, Raif Bey!’ I said. ‘I understand only too well. You are right to hold back everything that’s yours. You’re also right to want to destroy this notebook . . . but can’t you wait just one more day?’

With his eyes, he asked me why.

To press my case one last time, I moved closer. I looked into his eyes, hoping that my own would express the love and affection I felt for him.

‘Could you not leave this notebook with me for a single night? We’ve been friends for a long time now, and you’ve never told me a single thing about yourself . . . Do you really find it strange that I might wish to know more? Do you still feel the need to hide so much from me? To me, you are the most precious person in the world . . . But even so, you want to see me the same way you see everyone else – ​as a nobody – ​and abandon me?’

My eyes were filled with tears. My chest was heaving, but still I went on. It was as if all the resentments that had accumulated over many months had to come out all at once: ‘You may be right to have no confidence in others. But can’t there be exceptions? Can’t there? Don’t forget, you’re human, too . . . You’re being selfish, and for nothing!’

There I stopped, thinking this was no way to talk to a man who was gravely ill. He, too, was silent. So I made one last attempt: ‘Raif Bey, please try and understand me! I am just embarking on the journey that you are close to finishing. I want to understand people. Most of all I want to understand what people did to you.’

With a violent shake of the head, he cut me short. He was whispering something. I leaned forward, close enough to feel his breath on my face.

‘No! No!’ he said. ‘No one did anything to me . . . not a thing. Not a single thing . . . It was me . . . always me . . . ’

Suddenly he stopped. His chin dropped to his chest. He was breathing more rapidly now. Clearly, this scene had exhausted him. For a moment I considered throwing the notebook into the stove and leaving.

Once again, the patient opened his eyes. ‘It’s nobody’s fault! Not even mine!’ He could say no more. For now he was coughing. Finally, he indicated the notebook with his eyes. ‘Read it! You’ll see!’

I slipped the black notebook into my pocket, as fast as if I’d been expecting this all along.

‘I’ll bring it back tomorrow, and burn it in front of your eyes,’ I said. With a carelessness that belied his previous scruples, Raif Efendi shrugged his shoulders, as if to say: ‘You can do what you like!’

And I knew then that he was so far gone that he had even severed his connection with this notebook, in which the most important events of his life were recorded. I kissed his hand, to take my leave. When I tried to stand up, he pulled me back, to kiss me first on the forehead and then on the cheeks. When I lifted my head, I saw tears streaming down his face. Unable to hide them or wipe them away, Raif Efendi stared at me unblinking. And I could no longer hold myself back. I, too, was crying – ​soundlessly, wordlessly, in the face of deep and uncommon sorrow. I had known it would be hard to leave his side. But I’d not known it would bring me such ­terrible pain.

Once again, Raif Efendi’s lips trembled. In a very faint voice, he said: ‘In all the time we knew each other, you and I have never spoken for this long . . . What a shame!’ With that, he closed his eyes.

And now, it seemed, we had said our farewells. To keep those waiting outside from seeing the state of my face, I rushed through the hall as fast as I could and made for the door. A cold wind dried my eyes as I walked away, muttering, ‘What a shame! What a shame!’

Back at the hotel, I found my roommate asleep. Slipping into bed, I turned on the lamp on my bedside table, and began at once to read what Raif Efendi had recorded between the black covers of his notebook.

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