If the depths of our emotions were visible to the naked eye, how we treat people in our daily lives would be remarkably different. But as feelings mainly stay hidden, we lapse into assumptions that render people shadows of who they really are. In Sabahattin Ali’s tragic tale from 1943 (Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe’s rich translation flows seamlessly from narrator to flashback), the narrator, a young clerk in Ankara, finds himself curious about his officemate – a meek, sickly, German translator, ill-used by the company and his family. On his deathbed, Raif begs the clerk to burn a certain black notebook, and he agrees, on the condition he is allowed to read it. ‘He had, I imagined, poured the soul he’d hidden from all of us into these pages …’.
What unfolds is the story of a very different Raif, the introverted dreamer sent to Berlin by his soap-manufacturer father to learn the trade. One day he becomes captivated by the self-portrait of a woman – Maria Puder – in a gallery, ‘Madonna in a Fur Coat’, whom he later comes across in the street, following her to her job as a musician in a nightclub. Their immediate and intense emotional connection becomes a strange and complex friendship: Maria feels she cannot love, although she longs for it, while Raif secretly – passionately – loves the woman who is ‘a swirling blend of all the women I had ever imagined’. However, like the repelling poles of magnets, they are pulled away from each other by sickness and duty, too afraid to permanently take hold of happiness, realising too late that such people must be seized and loved, so rare are their appearances in life.
With Madonna, Ali rivals Flaubert in eloquently writing of the despair that sometimes accompanies desire, knowing that what one wants cannot be. The lover or beloved can only watch their own lives go on interminably – as if detached from themselves – both sustained and tormented by the dream-like memories of an unlived life, until they are blessedly released from it.