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Nights of Plague

A Review of Nights of Plague by Orhan Pamuk. Translated from Turkish by Ekin Oklap. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2022.

Orhan Pamuk is the first Turkish Nobel laureate for literature. His work focuses on Turkish culture and history, using labyrinthine plots, an overload of detail, operatic flights of imagination, and tongue-in-cheek word play. In a 2020 essay, Pamuk revealed he started thinking about writing a plague novel thirty years earlier. He regards Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year as “the single most illuminating work of literature ever written on contagion and human behavior.” Defoe’s narrator based the book on the journals of his fictional uncle, Henry Foe. When first published in 1722, the author was identified as “H.F.” For years, scholars debated whether it was fiction or nonfiction. Pamuk adopts a similar construct in Nights of Plague.

The novel opens at midnight in 1901. An unscheduled ferry, “stealthy as a spy vessel and bearing the Ottoman flag,” approaches Mingheria, a fictional Mediterranean island between Crete and Cyprus. Sultan Abdul Hamid (who remains offstage throughout the novel, but whose deeds are front and center) has secretly ordered Bonkowski, chief inspector of public health, to Mingheria, after containing an outbreak of bubonic plague in Smyrna. Princess Pakize, the Sultan’s niece, and her newlywed husband, quarantine physician Dr. Nuri, are also aboard the ferry. Prior to disembarking, Bonkowski confides to the couple that bubonic plague was just detected in Mingheria.

The fictive author, Mina Mingher, sets the novel’s bookish tone in the opening line: “This is a historical novel and a history written in the form of a novel.” She introduces herself as the great granddaughter of Princess Pakize and tells us the novel is based on letters her grandmother wrote to her sister Hatice from 1901 to 1913. In this nearly 700-page novel, there is an overabundance of detail. There are never enough roses or rosewater or rose-flavored pastries. There are never enough species of trees on a single stretch of street. There are never enough sightings of buboes. A legion of buboes sprout on groins, armpits, necks. Disease spreads. Bodies pile up. Dead rats get torched in incineration pits. Masked firemen—spray tanks strapped to their backs—storm the bazaars, showering Lysol over fruits and vegetables, plucked chickens and quails, as well as the butchers and tradesmen themselves who beg the crew to spare their goods, “…anywhere but there, sir, for the love of God.”

Mingheria’s 80,000 residents—half Muslim, half Greek—demand to know who brought disease to their island. The guy from Crete “roaming around at night holding a basket full of dead rats and spreading the plague around?” Torture and hangings occur at dizzying speed. Muslims blame Greeks. “Of course their aim is to pit Muslims against Christians, sow discord on this peaceful island, and tear it away from the Ottoman empire, as they did in Crete.” Greeks blame Muslims who question the plague as a spurious plot to drive Greeks away, “so (we) become a minority and can’t demand independence.”

The Sultan orders the newlyweds back to Mingheria after Bonkowski’s murder and the poisoning of his assistant with an arsenic-laced rose-and-walnut biscuit. Doctor Nuri Bey must find Bonkowski’s killer (using Sherlock Holmes-style methods of observation and evidence, as the Sultan is an avid Sherlockian). Greeks flee to Crete, Thessaloniki or Smyrna. They thumb their noses at authorities, pay their bribes and escape in the dead of night. The Great Powers ring the island with warships. As contemporary readers well know, wherever plague (or, for that matter, coronavirus) appears, anarchy follows. Tight controls lead to resistance against the mandates and the ruling authorities all the way to the top. In turn-of-the-century Mingheria: “Long live Mingheria, long live Mingherians! Liberty, equality, fraternity!” In contemporary Shanghai: “We want freedom! Xi Jinping step down! Communist Party step down!”

Princess Pakize’s bodyguard, Kâmil, becomes a pivotal figure. At blistering speed, he rises to become a legendary leader and proclaims liberty from the Empire. Pamuk is a master storyteller. He is also steeped in the history of his own country, including Turkey’s unjustified refusal to acknowledge horrific events from its own past. Pamuk’s probity has led to spurious charges against him by the Turkish state. One month after this novel was published, the Turkish state claimed his Kâmil character parodied Atatürk in violation of Law 5816. The complaint was filed, then dismissed, for lack of evidence. In 2005, Pamuk stood trial on charges of “insulting Turkishness” after stating in an interview that around one million Armenians were killed on Turkish soil in the early twentieth century. Nights of Plague contains dauntless references to “the massacres of the Empire’s Armenian, Greek, and Kurdish populations” and the plight of “foreign scholars of Ottoman history who had spent years sifting through Ottoman archives to research those massacres” when “the permits which had allowed them to work in the archives in Istanbul were suddenly and mysteriously revoked.” 

Pamuk’s works of fiction, while steeped in Turkey’s documented history, can also be likened to the oral traditions of epic stories and poems. Characters may be fanciful or idealized and their inner lives are not the main concern. Pamuk’s pleasure in spinning this tale is palpable. This long work could have benefited from a serious edit, but it moves fast. The engine driving the novel is change. Changes in attitude toward plague—denial, resistance, rebellion. And regime changes that steamroll events toward the ultimate—liberation from the chokehold of the Ottoman Empire. 



MARGOT DEMOPOULOS has published work in the Sewanee Review, Kenyon Review, Harvard Review Online, Fiction International, and elsewhere. Her essay, “Patrick Leigh Fermor: We May Just Forget to Die,” and her novel excerpt, “The Invasion,” were published in the Massachusetts Review, as well as her Working Title e-book, "On the Quay at Smyrna."

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