Perry Brass—Two Very Right-Now Novels from The Other Press: MADONNA IN A FUR COAT and FOR TWO THOUSAND YEARS

Madonna in a Fur Coat, courtesy The Other Press
Madonna in a Fur Coat, courtesy The Other Press

I’ve just read two recently published books from the Other Press which is making a name for itself releasing translations of books worth attention, something rare in this country where few foreign books are translated into English.

The first, Madonna in a Fur Coat, by Sabahattin Ali, translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, is an exquisitely precise rendering of what life was like in Berlin in the 1920s, prior to the worst of what would be the brutally inevitable march into World War II. It is told as a just discovered secret journal kept by Raif Efendi, a non-descript Turkish clerk in Ankara, the political capital of Turkey, who reveals that in his repressed virginal youth he had an illicit affair with a strikingly beautiful young woman “with a past” from Eastern Europe via Vienna who has painted her own self portrait, one Efendi has dubbed “Madonna in a Fur Coat.”

Maria Puder is a very Sally Bowles character, almost cut out of Isherwood’s Berlin Stories and later the musical Cabaret, except that where Sally is brashly, narcissistically exuberant, Maria is hesitant, fearful for her own economic and moral survival (most single women on their own in Berlin ended up prostitutes), and furiously angry about the treatment of women by men. In fact, she enters her affair with Raif because she knows that although it has no future, she can completely dominate him and she does. Although the cover remarks about Madonna compare it to, of all things, The Great Gatsby, I saw no comparison there, but did see it comparable to Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair: both books use very spare language, deal with forbidden love, and in both novels the heroine ends—let’s just say sadly. I don’t want to spoil the moving ending of Madonna for anyone.

My qualm with this book is that its language is often flat, there is little lyricism here—and young love is lyrical. I couldn’t tell if this was because the Turkish itself was that way, or the translators weren’t quite up to it. You have passages like: “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.”

Writers should never say, “Words alone will not suffice.” That is, after all, all alone we have to work with.

This makes Raif’s character difficult, from a fiction point of view, to work with: he comes from a matter-of-fact mercantile Turkish family that he is desperate to break out of, but knows he can’t. The economy and mores of the time will not let him. Where the book is really beautiful is in its own portrait: that of a repressed young man trying to be more than what he is, through the agency of a beautiful, impulsive woman’s soul. As he says, “I had pulled away because there was a part of me missing. But life was meant to be lived as these people were doing. They were taking their share of life and giving something back . . . . No doubt I was the most useless man in the world. The world would be no worse without me.”

Not true. Because without Raif Effendi’s story, Sabahattin Ali would not have given us this often poignant book.

Cover, courtesy The Other Press
Cover, courtesy The Other Press

,For Two Thousand Year, Mihail Sabastian’s novel translated from the Romanian by Philip O Ceallaigh, is a really dynamite thing—a fantastic piece of literary steak, dealing with “2000 years” of Romanian Jewish life (and its mirror anti-Semitism), to sink your teeth into. It is also told in the form of a journal, that of “Mihail Sabastian,” a pseudonym for the Romanian lawyer Iosif Mendel Hechter, who managed to survive the Nazi occupation of Romania that, aided by the Romanians themselves, killed 420,000 of the country’s Jews, Romania having one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe. In one of those great quirks of history—like Margaret Michell being hit by a taxi—Hechter was killed by a car, crossing the street in Bucharest in 1945, right after World War II.

For Two Thousand Years is an apt title for this book, because anti-Semitism was so engrained in Romanian life, such a part of its culture, that it took until 2004 for the Romanian government even to concede that the Holocaust had taken in place in its country. The novel takes place before the onslaught, the complete Nazification of Romania, when only “basic,” routine everyday anti-Semitism was the order of the day.

This is not an easy book even to begin summarizing: it is extremely well written, shocking in its candor, sexy, funny at times. It is really about the desire of human beings to maintain “normalcy” under the roughest of circumstances. The narrator desperately wants to find a rationalism behind the hideous, sadistic behavior of his fellow Romanians; he is a non-observant, acculturated Jew, and is sure that he can get a “free pass” because of it. If he will only act like a good sport, forgive his trespassers as Christians are taught to do, and see that within the role of the victim is an obstinacy as stiff-necked as that of their bullies and oppressors, then he can not only survive, but even overcome and proudly succeed.

Only a European could have written this book, and that in itself should make it interesting to Americans, especially now in our hard-to-believe Age of Donald Trump. The fatalism of Europe, the sense that we will all “muddle through” in the face of genuine evil—just stinks throughout it. The narrator wants so much to be a part of the unthinking majority. He is like a smart high school boy who envies the football team because they were all just “born that way,” to be jocks and victors. He is sick of the emotionalism of the Jews. He wants to be a part of the unblinking majority that “hides so many storms with self-control and rigorous thinking.”

He wants a return to formality and privacy—an extremely “queer” desire to hide behind the stiff divisions that maintain social order and, in the face of so much turmoil, power. “Without black tie and evening gown, nobody would have any privacy. Privacy is such a fragile thing, and it’s worth making sacrifices for.” On the other hand, he wants to revert, in fantasy, to the stolid, securely humble life of the land, something that accomplished urban Jews could not do. He wants to die “one day with the simplicity of mind of a peasant who has never left behind the sickle blade with which he has cut grass for seventy years. . . . “

Finally he feels that the “martyrdom” of the Jews is only a pose, something they cling to rather than enter the full dynamics of life. The book ends as Mihail has become accepted as one of the “good Jews,” the almost non-Jews, the ones who can be allowed into society because they have both forgiven their trespassers and also accepted the only too evident, full superiority of them

There is a real lesson here for all of us.

Award-winning writer and gender-rights pioneer, Perry Brass has published 19 books, including poetry, novels, short fiction, science fiction, and bestselling advice books (How to Survive Your Own Gay Life, The Manly Art of Seduction, The Manly Pursuit of Desire and Love). A member of New York’s radical Gay Liberation Front, in 1972, with two friends, he co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Project Clinic, the first clinic specifically for gay men on the East Coast, still operating as the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center. His acclaimed prize-winning dystopian futurist novel Carnal Sacraments, has recently been translated into Italian as I sacramenti della carne , and Spanish as Sacramentos carnales, penning a world where privacy, a personal life, and a moral compass are worthless to a high-stakes consumerist society of both endless bullying and cosmetic rebellion. You can reach him through www.perrybrass.com.

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