Review: Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s novel “Nights of Plague”

On the shelf

nights of the plague

By Orhan Pamuk
Translated by Ekin Oklap
Button: 704 pages, $34

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In 2012 Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s only winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, opened his Museum of Innocence in a 19th-century wooden house in Istanbul. A real museum of imaginary life, it contains 1,000 objects related to the fictional characters in Pamuk’s 2008 novel of the same name. To understand how daring that was, imagine buying a cavernous English mansion, filling it with historical artifacts and displaying it as Thornfield Hall, home of Edward Rochester and Jane Eyre.

Nights of the Plague, Pamuk’s 11th – and longest – novel is a real book about an imaginary place, Mingheria, an island in the eastern Mediterranean between Crete and Cyprus. The population of 80,000 residents is evenly – and tightly – split between Muslims and Greek Orthodox Christians. Like William Faulkner, who provided a map of his fictional county of Yoknapatawpha, Pamuk puts a map of Mingheria (capital: Arkaz) at the beginning of his book. Set in 1901, as the novel takes place, Mingheria is a province within the crumbling Ottoman Empire despised by the western powers as “the sick man of Europe”.

When a plague breaks out in Mingheria, the independence movement of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, who should prove to be the last absolute Ottoman monarch, also breaks out. Like works by Albert Camus, Daniel Defoe, and Alessandro Manzoni (whose The Betrothed has an inscription), this is a plague narrative, a record of Mingheria’s deadly years of martyrdom. We follow the daily collection of corpses and the relentless resistance to quarantine. But Nights of Plague is also an origin story, an account of how a proud island nation gained its sovereignty. After more than 600 pages of struggle, strife and suffering, the last words of the novel proclaim: “Long live Mingheria! Long live the Mingherians! Long live freedom!”

The focus of the story is Princess Pakize and her wife, Doctor Nuri Bey. Pakize is the third daughter of Murad V, a former sultan who was deposed by his current brother and imprisoned with his children in an Istanbul palace for years. Pakize’s tyrannical uncle arranged her marriage to Nuri, a renowned epidemiologist, but a marriage of convenience soon becomes a passionate couple. After Bonkowski Pasha, the Ottoman Empire’s chief inspector of public health and hygiene (and a Christian), is mysteriously murdered in the Muslim quarter of Arkata, Abdul Hamid II dispatches Nuri and Pakize to Mingheria to solve the case and the suppress plague. Their task is complicated by religious antagonisms and violent rivalries for power.

The cover of "nights of plague," with a black shadow partially obscuring a scene of people by the water.

Like Camus’ The Plague, in which Dr. Bernard Rieux waits to the last few pages to reveal that he is the one who told the story, “Nights of the Plague” is told by someone whose identity is kept secret for most of the book. In telling the birth of the independent Mingheria, the narrator relies on 113 letters written by Pakize to her older sister, Princess Hatice, and on archival material scattered across several countries.

Murad V and Abdul Hamid II are real historical figures, but Pakize is not, and neither are the Mingherians. The learned narrator describes the manuscript produced as “both a historical novel and a story written in the form of a novel”. Confusing the two by admitting that she is an imaginary historian, she proclaims at the outset: “I myself am a daughter of Mingheria.” and history enthusiast Orhan Pamuk”.

More than a century after the momentous events of 1901, the narrator enjoys visiting the birthplaces of Mingherian patriots, now converted into museums. And she notes: “This fondness for museums is another interest I share with the novelist Pamuk.”

A Museum of Imaginary History, “Nights of the Plague” is crammed with stuff that a more parsimonious curator might choose to deaccess. Detailed descriptions of food, medicines and clothing in Arkata and treatises on the Mingherian language add density to the prose. They infuse the work with artifacts of community experience while increasing the duration of the nightmare. Translated from Turkish by Ekin Oklap, who also translated Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind (2015) and The Red-Haired Woman (2017), the pages carry the weight of a fateful year.

However, they appear more often in the form of an exposition than a dramatization. That’s partly because our main source of information, Princess Pakize, who grew up in her palace, is now forced for her own safety to spend most of the crucial year in seclusion. She is dependent on others, particularly her husband, for information about the ravages of disease and political violence ravaging the island. Your account is secondhand and indirect.

The narrator, who shares her research three generations later, writes in the lukewarm voice of an archivist, not a poet. This is particularly true of the extended epilogue, in which she updates the reader on current historical developments, including the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the tumultuous rise of modern Turkey. Many Pamuk novels, including The White Castle (1985) and My Name Is Red (1998), are narrated by scholars, but this one mutes a story that should be loud with the current pandemic.

In the film “Night at the Museum,” Ben Stiller, a security guard at the Museum of Natural History, experiences a harrowing night in which the collection’s ancient predators come to life. It’s safer – and more exciting – to spend a week in Nights of Plague.

Kellman’s books include Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth and The Translingual Imagination. Review: Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s novel “Nights of Plague”

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