Novelist Orhan Pamuk on authoritarianism, covid and his new novel

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Orhan Pamuk’s new translation “Nights of Plague” is a novel of contradictions: humorous because terrible, historical because fictional. Telling the story of an imaginary island off the coast of plague-stricken Turkey in the final years of the Ottoman Empire, it examines both the disruptive force of pandemics and the rise of global authoritarianism through a dummy lens.

Pamuk’s joint interest in these surprisingly contemporary themes was coincidental; he began writing the book several years before the outbreak of the coronavirus. His use of the plague as a metaphor for the eruption of authoritarianism was no accident, however, as he recently told The Washington Post in a wide-ranging conversation conducted in English on “Nights of Plague.”

Pamuk’s allegory has not gone unnoticed by the powers that be, landing the Nobel laureate in legal trouble for allegedly insulting the Turkish flag and the nation’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. This is not the first time Pamuk has stirred up nationalist anger, as he has been accused of “insulting Turkishness” in the past.

Even when discussing serious matters, Pamuk manages to remain optimistic, insisting that things could still change for the better in his country.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

“Plague Nights” is a surprisingly funny book.

I wrote more than half of the story before the coronavirus pandemic, and my wife would go to work and she would come home during those years before the pandemic, and I would read to her and say, Look, so many horrors are happening! So many people are dying! Fires, revolutions, executions, hangings, bubonic plague, one in three dies. … And my book is funny! Do you think people think I’m heartless or what? She would say, Continue – go ahead. So I finished the book.

As you mentioned you started it long before covid. What inspired you to write a plague story?

Many years ago I thought about writing a historical novel set in a medieval Ottoman plague. In fact, in “Silent House”, one of my first books, there is an Ottoman historian who is looking for documents of a past plague, and later even in “The White Castle”, there are scenes of plague that I was considering.

I started reading about epidemics in the 19th century. I saw uprisings in Poland and Russia against the imposition of quarantine. At this time, almost without exception, to make quarantine work, governments have become authoritarian. [I read this as Recep] Tayyip Erdogan and the Erdogan government were becoming authoritarian. Finally, I say, it’s time to write my allegorical, political novel, because it’s an authoritarian situation. But before I finished it, the real pandemic took over.

I want to tell you this funny story. When I was writing the novel I thought the three greatest books ever written on bubonic plague were Daniel Defoe’s ‘A Journal of the Plague Year’, Alessandro Manzoni’s ‘The Betrothed’ – the Italian ‘War and Peace ” – and Albert “The Plague” by Camus. They are the best plague novels, and none of these writers ever experienced the plague. The most realistic is that of Daniel Defoe, psychologically, because he based his book on the notebooks of his uncle, who experienced the plague in London in 1665. None of these three writers experienced the plague, and neither did I. . I was like, I am the fourth! Then suddenly we were overtaken by the coronavirus, and everyone started saying How lucky you are.

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Did the real pandemic impact ‘Nights of Plague?’

Yes. In March and April 2020, when covid was a bit of a mystery and there was no vaccination and everyone was scared, I was over 65 and scared. And I realized that, even though I had searched so hard, my characters weren’t as scared as I was. So I injected them with my fear.

Why set the story in a fictional place rather than in a real place?

I started this novel as a political allegory, but the allegories are short, and it ended up being a panoramic description of the empire. Why do I need an island? I didn’t want to argue with the chroniclers of actual locations. I wanted an ideal place. Not Thomas More’s ideal Utopia Island, but ideal in the way it represents generality.

A common theme throughout your work is the tension between tradition and modernity, particularly in relation to religion. It is central to “Snow.”

It’s in all my novels. Modernization, tradition, these may be noble words for historians or sociologists, but for me, it should be a story. A human story. My idea of ​​people is not that there are the good ones, the modernists and there are the traditional ones — it’s not like that. We all have the desire to modernize and the desire to embrace the past or tradition, with different proportions in our minds. This is how I treat my characters.

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You mentioned that the novel was born in part out of a desire to respond to Erdogan’s rising authoritarianism…

There is no freedom of expression in Turkey.

This is exactly what I would like to discuss. Freedom of expression is always under attack, but we live in particularly perilous times in this regard. Turkey has imprisoned many writers and journalists as well as a number of musicians. Same in Iran of course. It’s a problem all over the world.

I don’t want to generalize. I mean, even in Trump’s America, there was free speech, right? He couldn’t cut it short. It restricts women’s abortion rights, or the court did. There are right-wing populists in Europe — [Hungary’s Viktor] Orban – but he couldn’t restrict free speech. In Turkey… there is no freedom of speech, and you cannot have real democracy without it. We have a electoral democracy. So many people are sent to jail so easily, so how can you say there is full democracy in Turkey? I do not think so. So in the end, I don’t want to make sweeping generalizations. I’m talking about Turkey.

You have again been accused of insulting Turkishness.

This time no. This time Kemal Ataturk and the flag. Insult Turkishness was 2005. So more or less the same.

They get mad at me, they want to get me in trouble, but they can’t really go on. The public prosecutor invited me to his office, telling me that Major [from “Nights of Plague”] was an insult to Ataturk. It happened in May of this year. Then there was a leak — I didn’t — it was leaked to the media this summer. And then at the end, the conversation was like this: So which page? The prosecutor couldn’t tell a page. And nothing happened. My case, this time, is lost in the maze of bureaucracy in Ankara.

Is the investigation theoretically still open?

Yes, it’s still open. They don’t pursue it, but they don’t close it. In case they might ever need it.

Would you say this is an attempt to silence you?

There may be an attempt at intimidation, but in the end they know it won’t work. But it is a political gesture. Don’t buy his book! Once there’s an investigation, once it’s reported big, a lot of people believe it’s true. It’s nationalist politics, of course.

In a world where authoritarianism is on the rise, what can writers or artists do to fight back?

First, survive. Don’t rush to jail. Then write.

I am the vice-president of PEN International. I care about freedom of expression. I care about writers who are silenced, reduced. I will not be silenced. I know there are writers who will not be silenced. That’s all we can do.

Also, we must be modest. The power of literature is limited. We can only move the hearts of people who read books. Let’s not exaggerate the power of fiction.

What needs to change in Turkey?

Of course, the first thing we need is freedom of expression. And on a human level, we need more loving, compassionate leaders. Who pities people. Who don’t just look at the statistics.

The Turkish people really suffer from immense poverty. I have never seen my country — or any country — become so poor in two or three years. Per capita income has fallen. The nation eats, consumes less. Enjoy less. I feel anger.

When I came to Turkey before, there was a much lighter atmosphere. Now it looks like a more closed country. Is it due to a rise in nationalism?

It is closed for other reasons, not ideological reasons. It is closed due to poverty. You cannot eat. You cannot travel because of poverty. And the nation is angry.

I don’t think the country is any more nationalistic than it was, say, 10 years ago. The nation is angry. I agree. Maybe the nation even expresses its anger through nationalism, but it’s not that all of a sudden people are all becoming nationalists. They may go inward, but they will easily open up if there is money, growth, egalitarianism, etc.

We are talking about very serious matters, but you seem surprisingly optimistic. Are you optimistic?

Yes! I am optimistic because Erdogan’s coalition will not survive if there is a fair and accurate election. The nation wants freedom.

Nick Hillen writes about arts, travel, technology and health for numerous publications. He constantly roams the world and you can follow his latest travels via instagram Where Twitter.

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