As a young girl, Filiz Ali understood that her father had two loves: his family and his writing. He devoted all his spare money to the purchase of books, and their modest apartment in Ankara, Turkey, was crammed full of thousands of volumes. One of her favourite memories is of her father writing stories at the table while she did her homework.
“He was that kind of person – if he started to think about writing, he couldn’t do anything else but write,” she says, now aged 79 and speaking from her home in Istanbul. “He could write anywhere and just ignore the noise, and you couldn’t ask him any questions because he wouldn’t hear you!”
In 1943, her father, Sabahattin Ali, wrote what would later become his bestselling work, Madonna In A Fur Coat – a novel that has just been published in English for the first time.
It was not an immediate success. But, after Sabahattin’s death in 1948, it gained wider acclaim. Madonna In A Fur Coat is now Turkey’s most celebrated love story and a set text in schools. Young people respond in their droves to the tale of a young man’s affair with a bohemian artist in 1930s Berlin and, for the past three years, it has topped the bestseller lists in Turkey, outselling even Orhan Pamuk.
This month, it is published in paperback by Penguin Random House in the UK. Oversized advertisements featuring the book’s striking black and white cover are currently plastered across the London Underground.
“I don’t really know exactly why it has this appeal,” admits Filiz. On the face of it, Madonna In A Fur Coat is a fairly straightforward tale of a passionate romantic encounter between two people in their early twenties. It was apparently based on a real-life love affair Sabahattin had when he travelled to Berlin as a young man. “But, you know, this book’s popularity amazes me,” says Filiz. “I think it was rediscovered by a new young generation. They found someone who wrote about love in a way they dreamed of experiencing it.”
It is difficult to pinpoint what makes it such an engrossing read. There is a mysteriousness at the book’s core, which means a reader is never entirely certain how the story is going to turn out. The two main characters – Raif, a naive young businessman sent by his father to pre-war Berlin to investigate soap factories, and Maria, an artist who refuses to conform – are unconventional. Raif often acts more as the traditional female partner, hopelessly in thrall to the more powerful, determinedly uncommitted Maria.
The critic Kaya Genc has argued that this is what lies at the heart of the book’s resurgent popularity. Turkey’s current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been criticised for his attempts to reinforce traditional gender roles along religious lines and for his hostility towards the LGBTQ community. So, maybe that’s why readers are flocking to a book which challenges these assumptions.
Turkey’s current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been criticised for his attempts to reinforce traditional gender roles. So maybe that’s why readers are flocking to a book which challenges these assumptions
If so, it would be a fitting fate for a novel written by one of Turkey’s most high-profile political dissidents. Alongside writing books, poetry and short stories, Sabahattin Ali also founded and edited a weekly satirical magazine that was profoundly critical of the country’s repressive 1930s government. He was imprisoned twice for his outspoken socialist views.
“At school, my friends used to tell me: ‘You know, your father’s a Communist,’” recalls Filiz, before adding, “I didn’t know whether that was bad or not.”
It was the only intimation Filiz had that her father was not just a writer, but a man with a profound political conscience. In 1948, he was found dead on the Bulgarian border. It is now widely believed he was battered to death while undergoing interrogation from the Turkish National Security Service. Filiz was 11 at the time. It was deeply traumatic. Her father had been a constant presence in her short life up to that point.
“He was a person who was sometimes quite childish,” she recalls with fondness. “He was my friend at the same time as a father. He was not very strict… He taught me everything that I know. We had fun! We always had fun. He was a great mimic and he would sing songs and make jokes… He played games with me. We took long walks together, he taught me to swim, we fished together.”
She can’t tell me how she found out her father her died. Some things are too devastating to remember. How did Filiz and her mother, Aliye, cope after his death?
There is a pause at the end of the crackling phone line.
“Well, we went on living,” she replies. “My mother’s life changed drastically because she was not terribly well-educated, so she couldn’t find a good job and we didn’t have any money. Because she was the wife of a dissident, almost all our acquaintances disappeared. They didn’t want to talk to us, to know us. We became poor, of course.”
Filiz won a scholarship to a boarding school and spent the next nine years there.
“My mother had a very difficult time. She had these traumatic experiences and couldn’t sleep at night and, as a result, I experienced a lot of anxiety, too. But, you know, one gets over these things.”
She first picked up a copy of Madonna In A Fur Coat when she was 14 or 15 years old. Her father used to read her his work when he was alive, eager to hear what she thought, but he had never read her that particular book. When Filiz did open the pages, “I didn’t really understand it very much. I was very young. I liked it – I liked the parts where he talked about Berlin, the streets, the botanical gardens – but I wasn’t interested in the love story.”
It is now widely believed Sabahattin Ali was battered to death while undergoing interrogation from the Turkish National Security Service. Filiz was 11 at the time
It was only as she got older, when she fell in love herself and got married and had two children, that she fully grasped the story. Filiz goes back to it “all the time… and each time I read, I find something new”.
Was Filiz’s mother ever jealous that her husband had written a book based on a real-life love affair with another woman?
She laughs. “No, my mother was very confident with herself. She was a very beautiful woman and didn’t think she had any rivalry, past or present. And, also, my father loved her and he was really such a catch for my mother. They joked about these things.”
Filiz became a gifted pianist and studied at the Ankara State Conservatory. She is now a critic and musicologist, and has two grandsons, who bear a distinct physical resemblance to the great-grandfather they never met.
“I see it all the time!” she says. “And not just me, but my daughter and son too will say, ‘Oh, his eyes are like his!’ or ‘Oh, his nose looks like him!’”
This makes her happy, but she sometimes worries about what her father, with all his courageous ideals, would make of the current global political climate.
“I think he’d be scandalised by people like Trump and Putin,” she says. “That wasn’t what he dreamt about the world. He dreamt about a democratic world where human rights were the first priority… He had a deep conviction about humanity and freedom.”
And, as it turns out, a deep conviction also in the power of love to outlast us all.