Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Germany, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Reading Projects, Sabahattin Ali, Setting, TBR2020, Turkey

‘Madonna in a Fur Coat’ by Sabahattin Ali

Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin Modern Classics; 176 pages; 2017. Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe.

If you have ever stopped and stared at a painting and been slightly bewitched by the subject, Sabahattin Ali’s Madonna in a Fur Coat will resonate.

This haunting Turkish novella drips with melancholia and heartache. First published in 1943, it tells the tragic story of a young man from Ankara who travels to Berlin in the 1920s where he falls in love with the portrait of a woman he sees in an art gallery.

Suddenly, near the door to the main room, I stopped. Even now, after all these years, I cannot describe the torrent that swept through me in that moment. I only remember standing, transfixed, before a portrait of a woman wearing a fur coat. Others pushed past me, impatient to see the rest of the exhibition, but I could not move. What was it about that portrait? I know that words alone will not suffice. All I can say is that she wore a strange, formidable, haughty and almost wild expression, one that I had never seen before on a woman. But while that face was utterly new to me, I couldn’t help but feel that I had seen her many times before. Surely I knew this pale face, this dark brown hair, this dark brow, these dark eyes that spoke of eternal anguish and resolve. […] She was a swirling blend of all the women I had ever imagined.

He eventually meets the woman from the painting and the pair strike up an intense friendship. But when he is called back to Turkey, following the death of his father, their romance is cut short. They never see one another again.

A story in two parts

The book has an unusual structure. An unnamed first-person narrator introduces us to a colleague named Raif Efendi, a talented but reclusive translator, whom he befriends. When Raif takes to his bed suffering from an unspecified illness, the narrator visits him at home to discover that his living arrangments are odd and that his family is kept at arm’s length. It is clear that Raif is deeply disturbed by something.

When he collects Raif’s belongings from the office, he discovers a notebook. Raif encourages him to read it. It is this notebook, a reflection on what happened in Berlin 12 years earlier, that forms the rest of the novella. In it, Raif explains his quiet disposition, his incredible shyness and his inability to properly communicate with people, including his immediate family who shun him because they fear he is too feminine.

This lack of typical masculine traits is what brings him close to Maria, the Madonna in the painting, because she recognises that his kindness and quiet, caring nature is far removed from the men she normally meets in the cabaret hall where she dances.

‘Now don’t you dare start thinking like all the other men … I don’t want you reading volumes into everything I say … just know that I am always completely open … like this … like a man … I’m like a man in many other ways, too. Maybe that’s why I’m alone …’ She looked me over, before exclaiming: ‘And you’re a bit like a woman! I can see it now. Maybe that’s why I’ve liked you ever since I first set eyes on you … Yes, indeed. There’s something about you that makes me think of a young girl …’ How surprised I was – and how saddened – to hear a new acquaintance echo my parents’ words!

But Raif’s inability to overcome his low self-esteem and his constant self-flagellation leads to his undoing, for even when he is deeply in love he cannot quite bring himself to fully open up to Maria. He keeps her at an emotional distance, in much the same way that his family keeps him at an emotional distance.

Never in my life had anyone loved me, ever.

Hypnotic, languid prose

I really liked this story with its hypnotic, almost languid prose and its acute psychological insights into one man’s soul.

And while Raif’s passivity annoyed me, there was enough character development to completely understand why a naive 24-year-old man — his first time in the West — might behave in such a way. (Anyone who has ever travelled alone for any length of time will know that there is something about being outside of your comfort zone in a foreign land that can inexplicably lead to a torpor from which you can’t escape. This is especially true if you are an introvert. I recall that Gail Jones writes about this, too, in her novel A Guide to Berlin.)

What is perhaps less understandable is why his siblings, his wife and his children seem to care so little for him, but perhaps that’s because he’s shut them out emotionally. It’s hard to know.

But I digress. As you might have guessed, this is a rather sad tale. It focuses on missed opportunities, thwarted love and the perils of living too much in your own head. If you like reading romantic stories full of tragedy and pathos, then Madonna in a Fur Coat is definitely a must-read. I promise you, it will linger in your thoughts for days, possibly months, afterward.

This is my 3rd book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I purchased this Kindle edition on 9 January 2019 for £3.99. I have no idea why. Perhaps it is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and that’s why I bought it. Unfortunately, I can’t check because my copy is still in London, but if anyone knows maybe you could enlighten me…?

2016 YWOYA, Author, Benjamin Wood, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Scotland, Scribner, Setting, Turkey, UK

‘The Ecliptic’ by Benjamin Wood

The Ecliptic

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 465 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award organisers.

I’m quite partial to books about art and the creative process, so Benjamin Wood’s The Ecliptic had instant appeal: a story set on a private island for beleaguered artists all struggling to recapture the muse that has deserted them. Think a motley crew of painters, writers, musicians and architects, all living together under the watchful eye of a provost and each working on an individual project that will restore them in the eyes of the artistic communities in which they once belonged.

It’s part mystery, part historical novel, the kind of story that is ambitious in scope and structure, a wonderful blend of art, madness and creativity.

A painter’s life

This four-part novel, which has been shortlisted for the 2016 The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award, is narrated by a Scottish painter, who introduces herself as follows:

I was born Elspeth Conroy in Clydebank, Scotland, on the 17th March 1937. I had always thought my family name quite unremarkable, and my Christian name so formal and girl-pretty. Elspeth Conroy, I felt, was the name of a debutante or a local politician’s wife, not a serious painter with vital things to say about the world, but it was my fate and I had to accept it. My parents believed a refined Scottish name like Elspeth would enable me to marry a man of higher class (that is to say, a rich man) and, eventually, I managed to prove their theory wrong in every respect.

Elspeth, you soon learn, is a talented artist, who achieved great success in the 1960s London art scene — against the odds — but then she lost her muse, and now she’s living on Portmantle, an island off the coast of Turkey, with other artistic “has-beens” trying to draw on new wells of inspiration.

Thrown into this mix is a troubled young man whose arrival on the island disturbs the equilibrium of all who live there. Who is he? Why is his behaviour so odd? And what is he hiding?

But before we get to figure that out, the novel takes a dramatic shift in direction, and we are taken right back to Elspeth’s early days as a fledgling artist, first in Scotland, then in London. We follow her as she (unexpectedly) finds fame and then witness her struggles to come to terms with it while remaining true to her artistic values. We learn of  the unrequited love she feels for her mentor and the terrible tragedy that befalls her onboard an ocean liner bound for the US.

It is this second part, entitled Rooms from Memory, that forms the remarkable backbone to an unconventionally structured novel, which, it could be argued, follows the ecliptic of the title. (The ecliptic is “a great circle on the celestial sphere representing the sun’s apparent path among the stars during the year”, one that is entirely imaginary.)

A novel with a twist

It’s difficult to say much more about this novel without giving away crucial plot spoilers. There’s a delicious twist at the end — one I did not see coming — and it’s of the kind that seems to divide opinion: you either think it’s genius or you feel slightly cheated by it. But whatever you think, there’s no doubting that the author went out on a limb, took a risk and did something that was far from predictable.

This lack of predictability is apparent throughout the entire novel. It could have been easy to have Elspeth and her mentor develop a sexual relationship; instead Wood writes the best depiction of unrequited love I’ve ever read in modern fiction.

Similarly, he could have made Elspeth a weak-willed woman; instead he gives her true grit. She’s a tough, determined and intriguing character, one who is true to her self and prepared to furrow her own plough, without fear or favour. The female voice also feels authentic and it’s hard not to fall a little bit in love with her.

But it’s the detail of the painter’s work — the technical aspects of grinding pigments, how they prepare canvases, the brush techniques they use — which makes the novel feel so vividly real. (In this respect it reminded me of Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, which I read earlier this year and loved for the same reasons.)

If you like art, mysteries and historical fiction, there’s plenty to admire in The Ecliptic. It’s a thoroughly engrossing novel, one that is intelligent, cleverly plotted and full of rich, intimate language. Its slow build up of suspense, despite its length, is also a feat that demonstrates much skill. But for me, the ending was slightly disappointing, although I loved the strange, almost hallucinogenic nature of it.

This is my 3rd book for the #ShadowYoungWriterAward.

Afghanistan, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, Terry Hayes, Transworld Digital, Turkey, USA

‘I am Pilgrim’ by Terry Hayes

I-am-pilgrim

Fiction – Kindle edition; Transworld Digital; 625 pages; 2013.

Proof that my tastes are fairly wide-ranging and eclectic doesn’t come more obvious than this. Terry Hayes’ I Am Pilgrim is one of those hefty tomes you pack in your holiday luggage, not only because it will keep you occupied for the entire length of time you’re away, but also because the story is so thrilling you won’t grow bored. Except… well…

To be honest, I had no intention of ever reading this book. Then two people recommended it to me, just days apart. And then I found out the author was once a broadsheet journalist in Australia and a close associate of film maker George Miller — the pair wrote the screenplay for Mad Max 2 together. So when I went on holiday to the UAE earlier this month (to visit my sister and her family) I took a copy with me, thinking it would keep me entertained if it was too hot to do much outdoors. As it turns out, it was too hot, and yes, I am Pilgrim kept me entertained. However… well…

Let me back track first and tell you a bit about the storyline. It’s essentially a modern-day spy thriller cum crime novel and most of the story is narrated in the first person by Scott Murdoch, codename “Pilgrim”, a secret agent with a covert organisation that has links to US intelligence. He is brought out of semi-retirement to save the world from an impending outbreak of smallpox that is going to be unleashed on the USA by an Arab Muslim (cast in a similar vein to Osama Bin Laden).

Just to make the story more exciting — or more complicated, depending on your point of view — there’s a crime to unravel as well. When the book begins, a woman’s body is found in a hotel room. She’s lying in a bath of acid, which has eaten away all her identifying features, including her face and fingerprints. The odd thing about this murder is that there’s nary a clue to be found — and it follows, almost to the letter, advice that Scott Murdoch wrote in a definitive book on forensic criminal investigation. This begs the question, how much responsibility should he take for the crime?

Octane-fuelled narrative

Intrigued? Well, admittedly I was, right from the start. This is an octane-fuelled narrative that swings across the globe — Manhattan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Afghanistan and Nazi Germany — at a dizzying rate of knots, following all kinds of plots and sub-plots, some of which are told in the third-person.

There’s violence, death and mayhem at almost every turn, but the story — or twin stories, as it turns out — is told in such an engaging and, indeed, filmic way, it quickly becomes a rather addictive read. The plots are complicated and some might argue far-fetched, but that’s not a complaint I would make — after what happened on 9/11 I don’t think anything terrorism related is out of the question these days.

It’s also an intelligent read and a fascinating insight into international politics, espionage, terrorism and forensics. It might be a fast-paced thriller but it’s not dumbed down. It’s got the kind of detail in it that suggests it has been very well researched and it feels authentic, almost as if it’s been taken from the front page of a newspaper or the lead news bulletin on TV.

Attention waned 

However, I have to say my attention waned once I’d reached the half-way point and I considered abandoning it. Perhaps it’s because my holiday had ended and I had to go back to my usual routine, but once I was back in London I’d kind of lost interest in the story. I began to pick faults:  the links between the terrorism plot and the murder plot seemed, well, weird; I grew sick of being told on every second page that Murdoch was the best secret agent in the business; and I kept seeing endless references to Australians (I know we travel a lot, but couldn’t the author have included other nationalities every now and then?). Minor annoyances, I know, but little things can grate.

Eventually, I made a decision that I had to finish the book (I’d read 300 pages after all) so I devoted several evenings and an entire afternoon to completing it. It concluded exactly as I expected: with a bang and all the loose ends nicely tied up.

It’s not the kind of book that’s going to win high-brow literary awards, though it did deservedly win the Thriller and Crime Novel of the Year award at the 2014 Specsavers National Book Awards in the UK. But that won’t matter when the film comes out: MGM has bought the rights to produce a Bond-like franchise. It has ker-ching! written all over it.

Author, Bitter Lemon Press, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Esmahan Aykol, Fiction, Publisher, Setting, Turkey

‘Hotel Bosphorus’ by Esmahan Aykol

Hotel-Bosphorus

Fiction – paperback; Bitter Lemon Press; 246 pages; 2011. Translated by Ruth Whitehouse.

I like crime novels and translated fiction so I thought this book, a murder mystery written by a Turkish writer, would be just my thing.

Hotel Bosphorus is set, as the title would suggest, in Istanbul. Billed as “the first Kati Hirschel murder mystery” it introduces us to the ballsy heroine who is the star of the series. (There are three written so far, but this is the first to be translated into English.)

Kati is 43 years old and single. Her heritage is German, but she has lived in Turkey “first for seven years, then for 13”, which is short hand for a much longer story: she was born in Istanbul, spent the first seven years of her life there, then moved away with her parents, only to return as a 30-year-old, where she has remained ever since.

What most readers will probably find most appealing about Kati is her profession: she is the proud owner of Istanbul’s only crime book shop. But whether you find it believable that her love of crime fiction means she has the ability to tackle a real life crime investigation is another thing. For me, I found this a leap of faith too far. Indeed, I found it fairly preposterous, but was prepared to give Aykol some leeway. It’s fiction after all.

The crime occurs in a hotel where Kati’s long-lost friend, Petra, is staying. Petra is a German movie star in town to begin work on a new film. The victim is the little-known German director of the film. There is deep suspicion that Petra murdered him because they were rumoured to have been romantically linked, but Petra denies any involvement — both in the murder and the romance.

While Kati’s not exactly sure whether Petra is telling the truth, she’s determined to get to the bottom of what happened. Along the way she strikes up a friendship with the local police inspector, who turns out to be the least professional policeman I’ve ever come across in fiction — he not only shares details of the investigation with Kati, he tries to have sex with her on two separate occasions! She also meets journalists and various members of the movie’s production crew, and she even has a run-in with a gangland boss. But it is a chance encounter with a suave Turkish lawyer that helps her solve the case. Yes, all rather ridiculous, I have to say.

However, I did enjoy the humour in this novel. Kati is an expert at delivering some terrific one-liners:

Also, from experience, I’ve learned that you can’t take revenge on someone who doesn’t care about you, whereas it’s easy to take revenge on someone who loves you — all you have to do is commit suicide.

And her wry observations about the differences between Germans and Turks are also very good. While those cultural differences might not exactly dispel racial stereotypes, Kati is allowed to make them because:

In my experience only those who have lived abroad have what it takes to criticize their own people, especially in the case of Germans.

Of course, she also tends to criticize Turkish people — for instance, the taxi drivers who don’t know where they are going — but leaps to their defence whenever she hears others put them down.

The only place in the world where I feel at home is Istanbul. Maybe that’s because Istanbul  is the only place that has no objection to me being myself… After a while, people don’t distinguish between which experiences they have selected for themselves and which have been dished out to them. I have a bona fide Turkish passport, yet in Turkey I’m a German. A German who speaks good Turkish. And when I’m in Germany, despite having a German passport and the fact that my mother’s a Roman Catholic, I’m a Jew.

But there were many things about this book which annoyed me, in particular Aykol’s emphasis on telling instead of showing. For instance:

To pass the time, I looked at the shop-window displays in the lobby. What strange things they were selling.

What were these “things”? Apples and handbags? Goatskin shoes and tacky snow globes? The author never bothers to tell us. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but Hotel Bosphorus is filled with sentences like this, and while I understand it’s a crime novel and not literary fiction this lack of attention to detail at the expense of moving the narrative forward feels shoddy. Indeed, most of the prose feels flat and limp.

The book certainly has its strengths, but on the whole I felt the story was clumsily written and the crime aspect was far too simplified for my tastes. It reminded me very much of Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 LadiesDetective Agency, which, frankly, I hated. It’s fair to say I probably won’t be bothering with the rest of the Kati Herschel series when they eventually get translated, but that’s not to say you won’t enjoy them if you like whimsical murder mysteries set in foreign cities.