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Why an old-fashioned novel is trending among Turkey's youth

A romantic Turkish novel first published in 1943 has finally been translated into English this month after becoming a social media sensation, coinciding with the third anniversary of the Gezi Park protests that shook Turkey and its ruling party.

"Kurk Mantolu Madonna" ("Madonna in a Fur Coat") by Sabahattin Ali is a highly quotable book on issues such as love, relationships, loneliness, coincidences and miracles. But why is the 1940s novel still so popular in today's Turkey, and linked to a political event such as the Gezi Park protests?

The author lived in Germany between 1928 and 1930 and was shocked by the rise of Nazism there. As a left-wing poet, teacher and journalist, he returned home and became an outspoken critic of the single-party regime in the early years of the Turkish Republic. He serialized "Madonna in a Fur Coat" in a newspaper in 1941, two years before it would be published as a book.

He was imprisoned over his nonfiction writing, including satirical works slamming the government in humor magazines. He was arrested for a poem criticizing President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s policies and released in the general amnesty process.

Ali's fiction got him into hot water, too. His novel "Icimizdeki Seytan" ("The Devil Within") drew the ire of ultranationalists. He finally decided to leave Turkey in 1948, but was killed near the Bulgarian border by an unknown assailant in a murder widely attributed to Turkey’s secret service.

Ali was an anti-establishment figure, but it is hard to find political messages in "Madonna in a Fur Coat" at first glance. The melodramatic novel tells the story of a post-World War I love affair between Turkish student Raif Efendi and German singer Maria Puder in Berlin.

To the surprise of some, "Madonna in a Fur Coat" has recently been experiencing a rebirth in the Turkish imagination. Around 750,000 copies have been sold in the past three years after just 250,000 copies in the previous 15 years combined. Even that quantity was actually large for the Turkish market, given that Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk's latest novel sold less than 231,000 copies last year.

Meanwhile, posting a picture of "Madonna in a Fur Coat" alongside a cup of coffee has become a trend among young Turks, with tens of thousands of such photos shared on Instagram and Twitter with the hashtag #kurkmantolumadonna. The Turkish Librarians Association declared it the most borrowed book in 2015.

Despite many challenges, Turkey is much more democratic, wealthy, tech-savvy and connected to the world now compared with how it was in the 1940s. Why, then, has an old-fashioned romantic novel suddenly become so popular?

"Madonna in a Fur Coat" had been translated into 17 languages, but not English until this year. The first English version of the book was published by Penguin on May 4, translated by Maureen Freely, known for her great work on Pamuk’s novels, and Alexander Dawe.

According to Freely, "Ali's spirit is alive with the young" in Turkey. "We see it in the students of the Gezi Park protests in 2013. It was Sabahattin Ali who gave them courage and he reminds them to protest without losing their sense of the surreal or forgetting how to love," the BBC quoted her as saying this month.

I was surprised to see the reference to the Gezi Park protests, which began in late May 2013 as an effort to stop bulldozers from razing central Istanbul’s Gezi Park, one of the few green spaces left in the city’s Taksim neighborhood, to build a shopping mall in the shape of an Ottoman artillery barracks that once stood there.

Those street protests, joined by millions from all segments of society and led by creative, humorous and life-affirming youngsters, have not yet transformed into a solid political movement that can challenge Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party.

Ahead of the third anniversary of the protests, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom the demonstrators and others have accused of increasing authoritarianism during his 13-year rule, furthered his grip on Turkish politics this month by replacing Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu with a closer ally, Binali Yildirim. Although Gezi Park still remains in place, the Council of State approved the construction of the faux-historical barracks this month.

"It is no surprise to me if the children of Gezi find solace in 'Kurk Mantolu Madonna.' Because what they were asking for in Taksim in 2013 is no different from what Raif and Maria found, however briefly, in Berlin between the wars," Freely told me when asked why she referred to the protests while talking about Ali's novel.

Like Ali, many young people are condemned, sued or jailed over their political views or statements in today's "modern" Turkey, but is this why they suddenly rediscovered "Madonna in a Fur Coat?" What did they really want while trying to save Gezi Park, and how is it linked to this book?

"It was the freedom to express their true natures and shape their own lives, according to their own principles and ideals, and most of all their refusal to let the state control their personal lives. At a time when the state intrudes in daily life ever more forcefully, there is, at least, a book that reminds them what is possible," Freely answered.

All these are in fact recurring themes in most of Ali's novels. By reflecting on personal drama and love stories, he philosophically inspects dichotomies such as those between the oppressor and the oppressed, the rich and the poor, the corrupt and the pure, the artificial and the natural, society and the individual. Many critics argue that "Kuyucakli Yusuf" ("Yusuf of Kuyucak") is Ali's true magnum opus with its wondrous ability to deeply depict these dichotomies with a masterful use of the Turkish language.

"Madonna in a Fur Coat" was not Ali's favorite book, according to his daughter, Filiz Ali, who recently told BBC Turkish that teenagers "feel that an emotional state that they miss or seek, a sensibility that is not known in today's world, is present in this book."

Another factor could be the book's name, which is "cooler" than "Kuyucakli Yusuf." As explained by the Turkish protagonist of the novel, his German lover looks like "Madonna delle Arpie," a 16th century painting by Renaissance giant Andrea del Sarto in which the Virgin Mary is seen standing on a pedestal sculpted with harpies in relief. Maria Puder's fur coat completes the novel's name.

As Ali writes in the novel, "The most simple, pitiful and even the most stupid person in the world has a wonderful, exceptional and complex soul. Why are we so far from understanding this and consider the creature named human as something easy to understand and judge?" Some new Turkish fans of his work may only follow the herd superficially, perhaps without even reading the book, posting photos of it on social media simply because it is the latest trend. Some others may be doing it because the passionate Romeo-and-Juliet-style love affair depicted in the book is so idealized and naive for the modern man and woman. As Raif, the protagonist, tells Maria Puder in the novel, love teaches us that "another life is possible in this world."

Still, there may also be people, perhaps a lot of them in the Gezi generation crowd, who consider "Madonna in a Fur Coat" a romantic refuge built by a political renegade who bridges Turkey's past to its future, as new shackles are invented to curb their freedoms in each decade even as the old ones are broken.

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