Orhan Pamuk likes to play new games. Each of his books differs markedly from the others, but each shares an ability to baffle the reader. This one is long and intellectually voluminous. It touches on big topics: nationalism and the way nations are imagined; ethnic and religious conflict; the decline of an empire; the political repercussions of a pandemic. It includes many deaths.
Yet for all the weight of its subject matter, its tone is slightly wry, arched, even flippant. It has many flaws. It’s repetitive; it contains way too much exposition. It is all the same – formally and in terms of content – one of the most interesting books I have read this year.
In 1901, a man in a major’s uniform gleaming with medals climbed onto the balcony of a government building and waved a flag. Blood gushed from a bullet wound in his arm but, unfazed, he shouted to the crowd gathered below him: “From this moment on, our land is free. Long live the Mingherian nation, long live freedom!
Fifty-eight years later, a little girl repeats these words to her great-grandmother. The child learned in primary school about the birth of his nation. She memorized poems about it. She saw images – all of them, the narrator sarcastically remarks, “clearly influenced by Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.” There are trinket shops full of souvenirs based on these images. She visited the museum dedicated to the heroic commander.
What young Mina learned, however, deviates from what we readers know. She thinks there were thousands of people gathered under the balcony. We know there were few – most of the major’s intended audience having been deterred by terror from catching the bubonic plague. The child thinks the Major was holding a national flag sewn by patriotic villagers. We know this was a banner originally designed to advertise rose scented hand cream.
Mingheria is a fictional island, located somewhere between Crete and Cyprus and sharing aspects of both islands’ history. It is part of the sick Ottoman Empire. The population is roughly evenly divided between Turkish Muslims and Greek Christians. The governor is the laid-back Sami Pasha, whose career as a colonial official has been disappointing and whose readers are likely, despite his occasional cruelty, to become rather fond of.
The first cases of plague were suppressed. The sultan’s royal chemist was sent from Istanbul to take charge. Shortly after his arrival, he is assassinated. To take his place, the Sultan’s niece, Princess Pakize, and her epidemiologist husband, Dr. Nuri, arrive; Nuri has to take care of the quarantine, Pakize write long letters to his sister. These letters, you can assume, will make up the narrative. But no, Pamuk does something more complicated. The novel we are reading, we are told in a preface, was written by Mina in 2017, drawing on Pakize’s letters and other conflicting sources.
There is no shortage of it. Minghérie is full of informers and spies. The Chief Teller is the most powerful of government agents and when his records come into the possession of Pakize and Nuri, they demonstrate just how ubiquitous his agents have been. Also, many participants in the story wrote their memoirs. The imaginary Mina uses these imaginary sources and her own imagination. Nights of Plague is historical fiction, but no one claims to have historical truth.
Pamuk hides behind two masks, two assumed female voices. He is also an impressionist, experimenting with other characters from authors appropriate to the period. There are obvious allusions to Dumas and Tolstoy, echoes of Joseph Conrad, Gilbert and Sullivan and Edgar Allan Poe. Sherlock Holmes is frequently invoked. The Sultan is a huge fan and urged Nuri to find out who killed the Royal Chemist using the “Sherlock method” of logical deduction. (Sami Pasha finds it more effective to torture the usual suspects.)
The novel’s chronology is as far from simple as its narrative strategy. The clock of the central post office of Mingheria simultaneously indicates two different times. Folds of time. People think back to their childhood. Mina looks forward to their future, pondering what historians will think of the events she describes. Phrases such as “That would come to light later” or “Our readers will find out” keep coming back. There are premonitions and spoilers. Plots of the plot are set up like whodunits, only for the answer to come casually and too soon. The characters’ back stories are introduced late, sometimes disproportionately. Our layered narrators seem to keep forgetting what we already know, or don’t know at all. The revolt of the pilgrim ships is mentioned several times before we are told about it. Every action is subject to reversals from different points of view. It’s confusing, I mean it on purpose. It is a novel whose structure is not like a scaffolding, but rather like a very complex knitting.
Pamuk (and/or Mina) flouts the normal rules of storytelling; the “show, don’t tell” mantra is completely ignored. When two newlyweds are finally alone together, he tells her, “Let me tell you about the state of the international quarantine facility first,” and he does so at length. “Allow me to digress,” says another character. He didn’t need to ask permission – in this fictional world, digression is the norm. And yet none of these breaches of literary convention seem to matter much in the face of the exuberance of Pamuk’s invention.
Pamuk often wrote indirectly about the Turkish nationalist revolution and got in trouble with the Turkish authorities for it. This book can be read as a playful variation on the theme. More obviously, it’s a novel about a community ravaged by an incurable disease. He speaks – in several different voices – about forced isolation and lockdown. It traces how an epidemic justifies authoritarian measures, offering Pamuk another way to make veiled commentary on Turkey’s current regime. It will inevitably be considered his Covid novel, and yet, despite all its rows of corpses, it rarely strikes a tragic note. It is rather a collection of literary experiments, playful, audacious, infuriating and entertaining.