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Plagues of the Body and Plagues of the Mind

Orhan Pamuk’s ‘Nights of Plague’ is a book for our moment, not because it’s a pandemic novel, but because of its mistrust of myth and narrow nationalism.
December 28, 2022
Plagues of the Body and Plagues of the Mind
Protective masks bearing the names of medical staffers and nurses are pictured pinned to a wall on April 2, 2020 at the operative field hospital for coronavirus patients, financed by US evangelical Christian disaster relief NGO Samaritans Purse, outside the Cremona hospital, Lombardy.(Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP) (Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images)

In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was common to hear people on social media ask, in horror, whether people were shortly going to start writing pandemic novels. The disease and the lockdowns seemed bad enough; would the publishers’ lists soon be flooded with books about middle-aged writers disinfecting their peaches? From a literary point of view, the problem with pandemics is that they offer little in the way of action. There is pain, there is suffering, there is fear—but there is not a lot of drama. When I heard people expressing retroactive surprise that there were so few explicit references to the Spanish Flu in the literature of the 1920s, the answer, to me, seemed obvious: It was hard to make all that death meaningful or interesting. Which is all just to say that I wasn’t thrilled to learn that the latest novel by Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize-winning postmodernist, was about the outbreak of a viral disease.

I needn’t have worried. Nights of Plague is a pandemic novel the way The Brothers Karamazov is a court-room thriller. Set during the early years of the twentieth century, it recounts the story of how the arrival of the (now largely forgotten) third plague pandemic led to a revolution on the (fictional) island of Mingheria, just north of Rhodes. The text itself is presented as being the work of historian Mina Mingher, who explains in the preface that she has set out to present “both a historical novel and a history written in the form of the novel.” Looking back from 2017, her narrative voice carries the story, and her characters are not the ordinary people confined to their homes, but the politicians, doctors, and soldiers making life-and-death decisions. What seems to interest Pamuk about the plague is not the mechanics of disease itself (he started writing it in 2017, long before COVID-19 was on the horizon), but the way a pandemic acts as an exogenous shock, suddenly revealing the submerged contradictions and prejudices within a society.

In many ways, Nights of Plague is a return-to-form for Pamuk, a writer who has been blessed by apocalyptic events. For the first twenty years of his career, he was a well-regarded postmodern novelist not particularly well-known outside of Turkey. His books were marked by intense interiority, a wariness toward objective truth, an appreciation for the slipperiness of identity, and an obsession with readers and texts. He had a deep familiarity with Ottoman history and a painterly eye for sensuous details. His fondness for detective stories and mysteries was evident. The living writer he resembled most was Umberto Eco. But then, in 2001, the planes hit the towers and the United States declared a War on Terror that nearly everyone understood to be a war on so-called Islamic terrorism. All of a sudden, his sensitive portrayals of East-West tensions and the complex relationship between the Christian and Muslim powers in the former Ottoman lands led to a renewed interest in his work.

Urbane, cultured, secular, and humanistic, Pamuk was the kind of novelist many in the West trusted to explain the inner dynamics of Islamic radicalism. In 2003, the English translation of his 1998 novel My Name Is Red won the International Dublin Literary Award, and in 2004, the English translation of Snow (originally published in 2002) was greeted with great enthusiasm. Snow put the conflict between nationalists, radical Islamists, moderate Islamists, fascists, Kurds, and the Turkish deep state at center stage. It was the most explicitly political of Pamuk’s novels up to that point, and Margaret Atwood congratulated him on “narrating his country into being” (which suggested, if nothing else, that Atwood was unfamiliar with the work of Oğuz Atay,Yaşar Kemal, or Adalet Ağaoğlu). Shortly after, while discussing freedom of speech with a Swiss journalist, Pamuk noted in a somewhat offhand fashion that “a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in this country and I’m the only one who dares talk about it.” The backlash was so fierce he was forced to leave Turkey. When he returned, a prosecutor charged him with “public denigration of Turkish identity,” an offense that carries a prison sentence. The charges were dropped in early 2006, and he received the Nobel Prize in Literature later that year. Cynics have suggested that he won the award for the persecution, not the prose.

By this point, Pamuk was well on his way to becoming a professional dissident, the West’s favorite kind of non-Western writer. But then a strange thing happened: He followed up the hyper-political Snow with The Museum of Innocence and The Innocence of Objects, one of the most bizarrely introverted art projects in the history of literature—put briefly: he wrote a novel about a fictional museum, then recreated that museum object-by-object in real life, then published an illustrated catalogue based on the museum based on the novel. It seemed that Pamuk had turned away from the civilizational politics of Snow to focus on the more peculiar struggles of private individuals. His later novels, A Strangeness in My Mind and The Red-Haired Woman, retain the sense of postmodern play and intertextuality that was the hallmark of his earlier work, but are more grounded in the material life of Istanbul—there is a gentle obsessiveness to these books that feels private, the way a backyard garden is private. It seemed, at times, that the success and controversy had led Turkey’s most famous living writer to withdraw into his flat, surrounded by his books, comforted by his long night-time walks through Nişantaşı.

Nights of Plague changes all that. In perhaps his most ambitious book yet, we see Pamuk striding back into the political fray.

It is difficult to summarize a nearly 700-page novel that purports to be both a murder mystery and the historical chronicle of a fictional country, and impossible to do so without giving away some of the plot. Suffice it to say that the main action follows Princess Pakize, daughter of the deposed Sultan Murad V and niece of the ruling Sultan Abdul Hamid, and her quarantine expert husband, Prince Consort Doctor Nuri. They are rerouted from a diplomatic trip to China by the mysterious death of Nuri’s colleague, Doctor Bonkowski Pasha, who had been dispatched to Mingheria to investigate rumors of plague. Together with their bodyguard, Major Kâmil (a native of Mingheria returning home after a long absence), the governor Sami Pasha, and the spymaster Mazhar Effendi, they set out to find Bonkowski Pasha’s murderer while keeping the spread of disease under control. Their initial antagonist is the influential Sheikh Hamdullah who is, for reasons good and bad, skeptical of the quarantine measures. But the real enemy is the disease itself, and the way it inflames existing tensions in Mingherian society.

Mingheria is a complicated microcosm of the late Ottoman Empire as it actually existed. Its population is half Christian and half Muslim, and its denizens mostly speak Greek and Turkish, though the old Mingherian language lingers on in small pockets. Fracture lines exist between those who would like to see Mingheria join independent Greece, those who are loyal to the Sultan, the British and French consuls looking to expand the influence of their empires, and the various Muslim sects primarily concerned with their own local influence and traditions. When the plague arrives, it quickly becomes clear that Istanbul is eager to impose quarantine measures not to protect Mingherians from disease, but to protect the rest of the Empire from Mingheria. With the island blockaded by European and Ottoman warships and nobody allowed in or out, the conditions are ripe for upheaval. The fact that Mingherians are a unique ethnic group with a unique language creates the grounds for an independence movement—though crucially it is not a grass-roots movement led from below (most on the island see themselves as being Greek Christians or Ottoman Muslims rather than ethnic Mingherians), but one orchestrated from above by Major Kâmil, a reader of French revolutionary history.

Far from solving the island’s problems, Major Kâmil’s budding regime quickly becomes distracted by Romantic visions of Mingherian nationhood:

The rulers of the new Mingherian state had mostly been busy dealing with lofty questions around the teaching of Mingherian in primary schools, the history of Mingheria, and Mingherian names and fairy tales. Concentrating on their personal preoccupations, they seemed to have withdrawn from the world, and could neither understand nor grasp the severity of what was happening in the city.

As the plague tears through the population, the nightmarish Catch-22 continues: The government is only able to enforce quarantine to the extent it can maintain credibility, can only maintain credibility to the extent it can control the disease, and can only control the disease by convincing people to adopt scientific measures that violate local customs and destroy the local economy, which cause it to lose credibility. It’s a crisis of public opinion that will be very familiar to readers in 2022, and the results are at once surprising and predictable: After independence is declared, a series of new governments rise and fall in rapid succession, each one gored on the horns of the same dilemma.

This furnishes a great deal of drama, but these cataclysmic events are only one layer of the story. There is also a metahistorical element, as our narrator Mina Mingher attempts to debunk the heroic version of Mingheria’s founding even as she relays it. She is a classic postmodern researcher-narrator, frequently interrupting the flow of events to provide commentary and sources. She is fond of correcting what she sees as errors in the “official” histories of Mingheria, and the text is littered with phrases like “some historians have argued…” or “we still have no conclusive information on the subject.” She is not a neutral chronicler (what historian is?), and a few key passages suggest that her perspective may not, on every point, be Pamuk’s. The real subject of this novel is history: how it is written, how it is used, how it passes into myth.

If you write a long, polyphonic, historical novel filled with big philosophical ideas, at some point or another you are going to have to wrestle with Tolstoy’s ghost, and much has already been made of the fact that Nights of Plague begins with a long epigraph from War and Peace. Some reviewers have suggested the comparison is unflattering to Pamuk, whose characters, though well-drawn and memorable, don’t glow with the hidden psychological fire of a Pierre Bezukhov or a Natasha Rostova. But I don’t think psychological realism is the point on which these novels should be compared: What makes War and Peace so unique among historical novels (and one of the reasons, perhaps, Tolstoy was reluctant to describe it as such) is its metafictional dimension. Generations of readers have complained about the long, essayistic passages where Tolstoy himself jumps in to argue about what drove the world-historical events his characters are living through, and for some, this editorial voice gets in the way of the exquisite descriptions and exciting battle scenes. Tolstoy has an axe to grind, and the grinding sound gets louder as the bodies pile up. Though Pamuk is playful where Tolstoy is strident, behind all the beautiful descriptions of Mingherian flowers and mountains of rose-colored marble, he is undeniably making an argument. If Tolstoy’s great theme in War and Peace is the powerlessness of humanity to remake the world through acts of will alone, Pamuk’s is the role of accident in shaping history and its writing. Tolstoy’s enemy was Napoleon, the embodiment of modernity’s hubris. Pamuk’s is the historiographic crimes of nationalism.

At a crucial juncture in the plot, Mina Mingher cautions that “we are now at a point when nationalist fervor blurs the lines between history and literature, myth and reality, colors and their significance.” She sees herself as offering a truer account of the events that led to Mingheria’s independence, an account rooted not in what powerful men like Major Kâmil later said about their intentions, but on the intimate letters Princess Pakize sends back to her sister in Istanbul throughout the crisis. But this is still a limited version of a story that can never be fully known. Mingheria becomes independent not only through the great accident of the plague, but also through thousands of tiny accidents at crucial moments. The problem with nations, the book suggests, is that they take all these small instances in which things could just as well have been otherwise and cast them as a monumental inevitability. Once a nation-state comes into existence, the machinery of education and civic ritual and the instruments of propaganda and state violence are wielded to turn chance into fate. And that fate becomes inexorable.

This is a bold thing to say in Turkey, a country that has gone to great lengths to promulgate a heroic and highly sanitized account of its founding. It is even bolder when one notes that Mingheria’s struggle for independence, and its troubled post-independence history, function very well as an allegory of Turkey itself. Major Kâmil is, like Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, an Ottoman war hero and secularist who tries to found a country divided by ethnic and religious rivalries on a conception of linguistic and ethnic nationalism. Like Atatürk, he becomes the much-mythologized subject of a cult of personality after his death, at which point his nation falls under the sway of a gray-cardinal figure (Mazhar Effendi) not all that different from the Turkish President İsmet İnönü, who oversees years of autocratic rule. The remaining Greeks are persecuted, and an unpleasant strain of chauvinism blooms. In the second half of the twentieth century, Mingheria experiences political turmoil, and is ruled by a military junta that jails leftists and dissidents. Eventually it emerges into the kind of globalized market liberalism that sees its cities flooded with international brands and European tourists, but this does not keep it from persecuting intellectuals who ask the wrong questions. The country has survived against all odds, but Major Kâmil’s dream of a free Mingheria for Mingherians of all religions has failed to overcome the contradictions present in its founding.

Nights of Plague stands as a kind of synthesis of Pamuk’s oeuvre. Like The White Castle and My Name is Red, it is a historical novel; like The Black Book and The New Life, it is a postmodern mystery; like Snow and A Strangeness in My Mind, it is an exploration of faith and reason; like The Museum of Innocence and The Red-Haired Woman, it is a novel about myth-making. Like all of these books, it is about the power and untrustworthiness of written texts—history texts in particular. These various strands don’t always cohere. The question of who killed Bonkowski Pasha is part of the main story of the novel, and yet it disappears for chapters at a time. Perhaps more seriously, the postmodern elements sometimes sit uncomfortably with the torrents of historical and sensory detail. There are whole chapters where Pamuk is quite obviously indulging his own fascination with the time and place, and yet his occasional sly reminders that the reader, too, is enlisted in solving this crime makes the story feel, at times, frustratingly unfocused. One can hear Pamuk the historian, Pamuk the sensualist, and Pamuk the postmodernist shuffling around behind the scenes.

Take the murder-mystery plot. It is established fairly early on that Sultan Abdul Hamid, absolute ruler of the Ottoman Empire, is a voracious reader of Sherlock Holmes stories (as, indeed, he was); Princess Pakize and Doctor Nuri are inspired by this fact to apply the “Sherlock Holmes method” to figuring out who killed Bonkowski Pasha. In the final pages, we learn that this method was successful, but Pamuk does not provide their solution. He does, however, give just enough information that readers can, if they are patient enough, work things out for themselves. Crucially, this involves looking up a few things outside of the actual novel (Sherlock Holmes solves crimes through his prodigious knowledge, and so to solve a Sherlock Holmes mystery, you need to know what he knows—Pamuk gets around this by giving you everything you need to know to know what he knows). The payoff is that after a great deal of fussing about you are able to solve a mystery that no longer feels all that important to the main plot. Is this a distraction? Is it onanism? Or does all this games-playing serve some kind of larger point?

One of the tenets of postmodernism is a distrust of grand narratives, and it is in this light that the mystery plot (and the novel as a whole) needs to be read. Nation-building is based on collective acts of forgetting and erasure, and detectives are agents of memory. But they are reliant on it being preserved by someone, somewhere, who bears witness, and not all witnesses are reliable. It is not always the case that the truth eventually comes out; sometimes, the truth is unknowable because no one recorded it. Sometimes it is unknowable because the recorder lied. Sometimes it only comes out because someone happened to have read the right book. As a historian, Mina Mingher embodies the virtues of a detective—rationality, patience, thoroughness, and a single-minded pursuit of truth. But the last line of the novel gives us reason to believe that even she is not without ideological blind spots.

Pamuk is a postmodernist who has kept the faith, both in style and conviction. His novels are filled with literary games, oblique references, unreliable narrators, and historians who’ve lost faith in history. At some point, a character named “Orhan Pamuk” always turns up. In all of his books, there is a conviction that cultures and nations, like individuals themselves, contain multitudes, and that any attempt to isolate the pure essence of a thing leads, eventually, to some form of madness. If all of this sounds old-fashioned, even quaint, that’s because it is. Postmodernism has a musty smell about it these days, the used bookshop smell of a literary movement whose historical moment has ended. But I cannot help but feel that there is a heroism in Pamuk’s commitment to writing a postmodern novel in 2022. For all its irresponsibility and excess, its cutesiness and camp, postmodernism sounds a note of warning that our new age of grand narratives is in danger of drowning out.


André Forget

André Forget writes from Sheffield, United Kingdom. His first novel, In the City of Pigs, was published in 2022. He is currently working on a book about propaganda. Twitter: @ayforget.