Nights of Plague
By Orhan Pamuk
Knopf, US
ISBN: 978-0525656890
704pp.

“The kind of writing I like associates the characters’ drama with the landscape,” notes Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk. “I want shadows and drama. I like it when there is history, when there is decay. I’m very much impressed when a city has a decaying face. I identify it with my own.”

No wonder there is an atmosphere of menace in Nights of Plague, Pamuk’s 11th and latest novel.

Transposed from the original Turkish by Ekin Oklap — who also translated Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind (2015) and The Red-Haired Woman (2017) — the lavishly imagined new novel is about a fictional island called Mingheria, which is a province within the crumbling Ottoman Empire, in 1901. This was the time when the West dubbed Turkey “the sick man of Europe.”

Although the mythical Mingheria — which has a fairy tale quality — reminds me of Marcel Proust’s Combray or Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo, in its infinite realistic details it is more like William Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Like Faulkner, who provided a map of his county, Pamuk places a map of Mingheria (population 80,000) with its capital Arkaz (population 25,000) at the beginning of his book.

Orhan Pamuk’s pseudo-historical detective story set on a fictional island in Ottoman times reminds us that the postmodern author’s fictions cannot be appreciated simply by focusing on the plot

The fictional island, also known as “the pearl of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea”, is located between Crete and Cyprus on the shipping route between Istanbul and Alexandria. Its population is divided evenly between Muslims and Greek Orthodox Christians.

When the bubonic plague breaks out in this paradise — brought either by Muslim pilgrims returning from Makkah, or by ships coming from Alexandria — the Ottoman sultan Abdul Hamid II sends to Mingheria his most accomplished quarantine expert, an Orthodox Christian named Bonkowski Pasha. However, some of the Muslims have a fatalistic attitude and refuse to respect the quarantine or take other precautions.

Then someone murders Pasha. As the plague continues its rapid spread, the sultan hides this bad news and secretly sends out another quarantine specialist doctor — 38-year-old Muslim Nuri Bey — to solve the crime and try again to contain the plague. But the second quarantine also fails and the death count continues to rise.

As the scent of Mingheria’s ubiquitous roses mingles with the stench of rotting flesh and the then fairly recently developed disinfectant Lysol, the islanders are left on their own to find a way to defeat the plague. Faced with the danger that the plague might spread to the West and to Istanbul, the sultan bows to international pressure and allows foreign and Ottoman warships to blockade the island.

Like Albert Camus’s La Peste [The Plague], in which Dr Bernard Rieux waits until the final pages to reveal that he is the one who has been telling the story, Nights of Plague is narrated by someone whose identity is withheld for most of the book. This is historian Mina Mingher, granddaughter of one Princess Pakize who lived briefly on the island. Married to Dr Nuri Bey, Pakize is the fictional daughter of Sultan Murad V and is proclaimed queen of Mingheria.

Mina bases her book on 113 letters Princess Pakize mails to her elder sister, Princess Hatice in Istanbul, during the plague between 1901 and 1913. The historian also recounts the birth of independent Mingheria. Her chronology is rich — some would say too tedious — in detail and Mina pretentiously compares it to Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which she calls the “greatest historical novel of all.”

An 1854 watercolour painting by British naval officer Montagu O’Reilly, of people standing among tombs in a Turkish burial ground | Public domain
An 1854 watercolour painting by British naval officer Montagu O’Reilly, of people standing among tombs in a Turkish burial ground | Public domain

The three-dimensional fairy tale Mina is writing is part historical epic, part modern-day detective novel and, at times, orientalist sensation fiction. Following the Ottoman sultan’s favourite crime mysteries written by Arthur Conan Doyle, Princess Pakize turns into Sherlock Holmes herself as she investigates the murder of the quarantine expert Bonkowski Pasha.

Obsessed with the detective’s methods, the princess investigates a poisoning — shrouded in mystery and deliberate confusion — by reading the chapter ‘Toxicology’ of Doyle’s novel The Count of Monte Cristo as Retold by Sherlock Holmes.

Unfortunately, the politics in Nights of Plague requires so much explaining that the story takes a long time finding its feet. The extent of details is staggering — for instance, the pages and pages devoted to the different methods employed in waxing a moustache.

In short, on the surface, the novel has many structural flaws. It is repetitive and flouts the normal rules of storytelling: the maxim of ‘show, don’t tell’ is completely ignored and characters deliver paragraphs-long dialogues. This is quite surprising coming from such a seasoned novelist.

Sandwiched between the two female voices of Princess Pakize and historian Mina Mingher, Pamuk is hiding behind two masks which leads to a lot of confusion. Is this confusion deliberate? Yes, the novel is a very complex piece of knitting, but the excessive details, events and characters in its almost 700 pages will undoubtedly be exasperating for the average reader.

Sultans Murad V and Abdul Hamid II are actual historical figures, but Pakize is not, and neither are the Mingherians. Mina describes the manuscript produced as “both a historical novel and a history written in the form of a novel.”

As an imaginary historian, she proclaims at the outset: “I myself am a daughter of Mingheria.” Resorting to metafiction, this fictional narrator of a fictional island claims to have consulted with “the novelist and history enthusiast Orhan Pamuk.”

In his defence, therefore, let me say that Pamuk really is a postmodern writer whose book is rife with plots and counterplots that resist what some writers have called the ‘search for meaning in a novel’. He is quintessentially a novelist for the post-truth age, where truth no longer matters. Many contemporary politicians in the world today understand this reality better than novelists.

Another thing. When Pamuk called himself a paranoid writer in The Atlantic magazine, he named other great writers of the same genre as Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka. But he said that “he had a certain edge over them because he had grown up in a Turkey that ‘has appropriated paranoia as a form of existence’.”

Parts of Nights of Plague read like a farce; other parts are mock-heroic. To appreciate a Pamuk novel, you cannot focus only on plot. You must pay close attention to how the story is told and who is narrating it. Remember, Pamuk sets fictions inside metafictions and that can be deliberately confusing.

Currently, Pamuk is being investigated in Turkey for insulting, in Nights of Plague, the founding president of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. At issue is the portrayal of the character Major Kamil, who is the father of the fictional new nation of Mingheria.

Although there are strong similarities between the two revolutionary and nationalist leaders who want to modernise their societies, in temperament and character, the fictional founder of modern Mingheria and Atatürk are quite different human beings. Nevertheless, the novel is a satire and an allegory. Clearly, Pamuk had Ataturk’s and current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s autocratic style of leadership in mind when he portrayed Major Kamil.

In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Pamuk said that he began thinking about a plague novel 40 years ago when he wrote 1983’s Silent House, but started work on Nights of Plague in 2016, finishing it in 2021.

He says: “I want to tell you this funny story. When I was writing the novel, I was thinking how the three greatest books ever written about the bubonic plague were Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed — the Italian War and Peace — and Albert Camus’s The Plague. These are the best novels about plague, and none of these writers had ever experienced plague.

“The most realistic is Daniel Defoe’s, psychologically, because he based his book on his uncle’s notebooks, who experienced the 1665 London plague. None of these three writers experienced plague, and neither had I. I was like, I’m the fourth one! Then suddenly we were overtaken by coronavirus, and everyone began saying ‘How lucky you are’.”

The reviewer is a retired diplomat and author of five literary books including a novel. A chapter in his latest book A Wanderer Between the Worlds deals with his visit to Istanbul and the novels of Orhan Pamuk. www.javedamir.com

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 11th, 2022

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