Books can change everybody’s lives. This statement might be pertinent for their authors, too.
A novel, first published 73 years ago in Turkey, was not popular initially. But almost a decade ago, it suddenly caught the public’s attention.
The book — “Madonna in a Fur Coat” — was passed from friend to friend, reader to reader, expanding like an urban legend. It has sold nearly 1 million copies in the last 10 years. Last month, it was translated into English.
Its author, Sabahattin Ali, is part of a fascinating and inspiring story.
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Ali was a prominent journalist, writer and poet in Turkey during the 1930s and 1940s. He always had trouble with politics.
“Madonna in a Fur Coat,” one of his three novels, has become well known throughout the country as a classical masterpiece on love. It’s a story about a Turkish man and German woman, a complicated and emotional love affair, almost a Shakespearean tragedy that includes story lines of freedom, jealousy, shyness and euphoria.
Last year, Turkey’s Nobel Prize winning-author Orhan Pamuk’s novel, “A Strangeness in My Mind,” sold fewer than 231,000 copies, compared with the 350,000 copies of “Madonna in a Fur Coat.” That’s a huge number in Turkey.
But Ali’s personal life is not a joyful story.
He was born in 1907, several years before World War I, which destroyed all the empires at that time, including the Ottoman.
Ali graduated from a school of education and had a state scholarship. The newborn Turkish Republic used to send its brilliant young girls and boys to Western countries to get a better education. Eventually, Ali went to Germany during the Weimar Republic.
He did not like Germany but it gave him inspiration and a scene for “Madonna in a Fur Coat.”
When he came back to Turkey, Ali started teaching. He wrote essays and columns for newspapers and magazines that criticized politicians and discussed social issues.
He was arrested because of his writings, including a poem that criticized the country’s leaders. Along with two other journalists, Ali was charged with libeling and insulting the state and its leader, M. Kemal Ataturk.
(It’s even worse 84 years later: 1,845 lawsuits have been opened against journalists and others accused of insulting President Tayyip Erdogan since he came to office in 2014.)
Ali was convicted and released from prison in 1933 due to the general amnesty granted in the 10th year of the Turkish Republic. But his suffering did not end.
In the 1940s, Ali founded Turkey’s popular weekly newspaper “Marko Pasha” with another famous writer, Aziz Nesin. Ali was imprisoned again in 1944 because of his essays.
Turkey had a multi-party democracy in 1946. But this major development did not change Ali’s tragedy. Even though he was out of prison by then, almost every politician in the parliament harshly disagreed with Ali’s writings.
The major themes for his essays and poems were the problems that face poor people and freedom of speech. Even as he wrote his inspiring books, he never could breathe that freedom.
He was crushed under the pressure of the regime and politicians. He decided to flee to Europe. But he was killed on the Bulgarian border in 1948. The murderer was his guide, who likely was an agent of the Turkish state. That man said of Ali: “I killed him with national intentions. He told me he was going to change the regime.”
At the time, Sabahattin Ali was the first journalist murdered during the early years of multi-party Turkish democracy. But dozens of journalists have been killed since.
Ali’s “Madonna in a Fur Coat” is an excellent book, not just because it is marvelous but because it also reminds us of a crusader for freedom.
Gokce Aytulu is an Alfred Friendly fellow from Turkey. The Star will be his host this summer. Twitter: @GokceAytulu