Outbreaks and Uprisings in Orhan Pamuk’s “Nights of Plague”

Six years ago, the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk started writing a historical novel about the outbreak of bubonic plague on a fictional island. He’d been dreaming of such a project for decades: as a student of history and of the great European plague chronicles and novels—Defoe’s “A Journal of a Plague Year,” Manzoni’s “The Betrothed,” Camus’s “The Plague”—he had a particular interest in the way that plagues have tended to get what we might now call “Orientalized.” Muslims, especially in the Ottoman Empire, have been portrayed as more resistant than Christians to the imposition of quarantine. In a 2020 essay, Pamuk argues that Western observers like Defoe noted a strain of fatalism in the Muslim world view—the theological idea of “Every Man’s end being determined,” as Defoe put it. If you can do nothing to alter your fate, why bother protecting yourself from death? (Historians have vigorously contested the claims about both resistance and fatalism.) Pamuk maintains that, in the nineteenth century, the rise of pilgrimages to Mecca or Medina insured that Muslims became “the world’s most prolific carriers and spreaders of infectious disease.” And since people always imagine that plague comes from elsewhere, from anywhere but within one’s own society, it may have been politically convenient for Westerners to imagine that it somehow originated in Muslim lands, or, more vaguely, in “the East.” As Pamuk reminds us, “Crime and Punishment” ends with Raskolnikov grandiosely fantasizing of a great, obliterating plague “that had come to Europe from the depths of Asia.”

So Pamuk started writing what became the near-seven-hundred-page novel “Nights of Plague” (Knopf), which has just been published in an English translation by Ekin Oklap. Then viral reality caught up with fiction, and Pamuk was suddenly writing a plague novel officially set in 1901 which was really a pandemic novel pointing to 2020. As a result, Pamuk’s story effortlessly generates a set of resonances that the novelist could hardly have predicted when he started the book. Hygiene theatre, for instance: on Pamuk’s fictional island of Mingheria (more about this in a moment), government clerks spray vast quantities of Lysol into the air. The contemporary historian who narrates the book tells us that “these initial precautions, which we now know to be largely ineffective,” reassured the populace that the epidemic “was a minor threat easily defeated with spray pumps and remedies that could be sprinkled into the air like perfume.” And the chronic breaching of lockdown: though citizens on Mingheria are not allowed to leave the island once quarantine is imposed, they do so anyway, “under cover of darkness.” And origin stories: some Mingherians think they have seen a sinister Cretan man walking around at night with a bag of dead rats, scattering their infected corpses around the streets; others are sure that the plague was imported on the very ship that brought to the island the Chief Inspector of Public Health and Sanitation, the man charged with containing the outbreak (i.e., they’re sure Dr. Fauci created it).

Curiously, though, the plague is not the most interesting element of Pamuk’s novel. Imaginatively speaking, the plague is relatively dead in “Nights of Plague,” partly because, as seasoned Covidians, we’re all now morbidly familiar with the mechanics of plague containment. What is most vital in this book is what is most fictional: Pamuk’s lovingly obsessive creation of the invented Mediterranean island of Mingheria, a world so detailed, so magically full, so introverted and personal in emphasis, that it shimmers like a memory palace, as if Pamuk were conjuring up a lost city of his youth, Istanbul’s exilic, more perfect alter ego. The effect is daringly vertiginous, at once floatingly postmodern and solidly realistic, something like Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” crossed with the nostalgic re-creations of Joyce’s lost Dublin, or Joseph Roth’s vanished Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Consider, for instance, the pleasure that Pamuk takes in fictional naming. Istanbul Street is the city’s most vibrant thoroughfare (or was, until the plague struck). There is a Hotel Majestic, a Hotel Splendid, and, more gauzily christened than either of those, a Hotel Regard à l’Ouest. Notable landmarks include the Arkaz Castle, with its “quaint spired towers”; the White Mountain, “considered to be the most mysterious among the various volcanic peaks that populated the Mediterranean Sea”; and the Central Post Office and Telegraph Office, with its grand imperial entrance. There are also various churches and mosques—I enjoyed the fabulously named Blind Mehmet Pasha Mosque—indicative of the island’s Venetian, Byzantine, and Ottoman history, and of its mixed religious and racial population. (Of about eighty thousand inhabitants, roughly half are Muslim and half non-Muslim, mostly Greek Orthodox.) The gemlike island sits to the west of Cyprus. We are told that it is the Ottoman Empire’s twenty-ninth province.

Mingheria, as Pamuk conceives it, is an impossible Eden, into which the bacillus of history must enter. It is a fantastical, fantastically beautiful place, famous for its pink stone, drenched in “pink, yellow, and orange hues.” Homer and Pliny wrote about this Mediterranean jewel; Romantic travellers memorialized its spires and mountains. Pamuk tells us that it “seemed to belong in the pages of a fairy tale.” Or possibly in the pages of Tintin books, each scene and tableau painted into unreal reality by the fanatically detailed illustrations of Hergé. What is more Tintin-esque than the Department of Scrutinia, “an office which existed in no other Ottoman province,” headed by Mingheria’s top spy, Chief Scrutineer Mazhar Effendi? Or the island’s mysterious Translation Bureau? (Required, one imagines, because at least two difficult languages, Turkish and Mingherian, are spoken on the island. Indeed, Pamuk extends a running joke throughout the novel about the difficulty of reading and writing the “magical language” of Mingherian.)

There’s a curious way in which Pamuk, alert for how, in history, the plague has been unfairly Orientalized, enjoys, in fiction, frankly Orientalizing his own island, imbuing it with swirls of Ottoman magic and legend. It was no surprise to this reader that, near the end of the novel, we find Pamuk taking a little swipe at Edward Said, for the “negatively inflected sense” of Said’s academic coinage “Orientalist.” Here, Pamuk, one might say, is in the fictional business of producing a positively inflected Orientalism that has the decided advantage, in his sure hands, of actually issuing from the Orient.

The tale opens like a starry romantic chronicle. A steamer, topped with delicate white funnels and flying the Ottoman flag, is arriving by night at the Arkaz harbor. The island shimmers in the moonlight. It is 1901. On board are the Ottoman Empire’s Chief Inspector of Public Health and Sanitation, a Christian of Polish origin; his assistant, a Greek physician; and yet another physician, who is accompanied by his wife, a niece of the Empire’s sultan and so a princess. The princess will spend much of the novel confined to her quarters, writing long letters to her sister back in Istanbul; the novel’s tale is supposedly constructed, by her great-granddaughter Mîna, from these letters. The Chief Inspector of Public Health and his assistant are already celebrated as “scientist-saviors” for their work in containing previous outbreaks of plague and cholera in the vast Ottoman Empire. They, along with the prince consort, have arrived in Mingheria because of signs pointing to a new outbreak.

“Is there anything you can help me help you with?”

Cartoon by Liana Finck

It is at this moment that the island becomes “real,” which is to say, becomes political. The three medical scientists will have to deal with a shifting political landscape, one all too familiar to us in 2022. There is the cagey, anxious, ambitious governor, Sami Pasha, who first resists the idea that plague has broken out on the island, and then throws himself into the project of containment with too much fervor. (He’s fond of imprisoning people.) There is the aforementioned spy, Mazhar Effendi, who looks like an unassuming bureaucrat but will turn out to be fiercely dangerous. There are merchants and shopkeepers who are resistant to lockdown. There is the simmering tension between Muslims and Christians, and a Muslim hostility—accentuated by a recent deadly incident known as the Pilgrim Ship Mutiny—to European quarantine. And there is Sheikh Hamdullah, head of the island’s most powerful religious group, the Halifiye sect, who may or may not be fomenting political resistance to Governor Sami Pasha.

In leisurely strokes, Pamuk sets up all these characters. The story sparks into life when the Chief Inspector of Public Health is murdered in one of the riskier neighborhoods of Arkaz. Then his assistant is killed by a poisoned rose-and-walnut biscuit. A Quarantine Regiment is formed, to patrol the districts and enforce the hated quarantine. Mingherian resistance grows—the first breath of what will become full-blown Mingherian nationalism. The sheikh eventually contracts the plague. The disease rages out of control, the body count rises, and Governor Sami Pasha is relieved of his job by the sultan, who says that he is sending a new man from Istanbul to be the island’s governor, and that poor Sami Pasha will be sent off to Aleppo—a grim twenty-first-century joke, surely—to be the new ruler there. A demotion, as Sami Pasha fully understands.

These are some of the story’s galvanizing events, around which intricacies of various kinds are wound. As you’d expect in such a long novel, there’s a good deal of plot, but the book is engrossing and easy to read. The result is strangely paradoxical: a big but swift novel, a novel about pain and death that is fundamentally light and buoyant. This is partly because Pamuk doesn’t linger on his characters, and doesn’t ask much of their interiors, or forcefully goad their spiritual destinies; although there’s an epigraph from “War and Peace,” you’ll find no earnest, questing Pierre Bezukhov in these pages, and very little theodicy. Pamuk is interested less in the human dimension of his story than in its political ramifications. He places his humans in the rich imaginary world he has created, this world he calls a “three-dimensional fairy tale,” and observes what happens to the state when an epidemic tests its tolerances. Sure enough, things buckle.

That inquiry is traditionally novelistic, and written up, for the most part, in traditionally “realistic” guise—a three-dimensional fairy tale is, after all, a pretty good definition of the realist enterprise. There are political uprisings, a bloody shoot-out, transfers of power, the machinations of spies and lovers. But the whole thing feels lightly enchanted because what captures Pamuk’s attention is not morbidity and mortality but the steady deathless roll of events, and above all the strange fate of his fictional island. In order to convey an adequate sense of that fate, I will have to approach the book’s ending: readers excited by narrative unknowing should turn away here, as if from a spoiled corpse. What happens, in brief, is that, at the moment when those in political charge of the island’s daily operations are ordered to yield to the omnipotence of Istanbul and the sultan, they turn rogue, and declare the island free and independent. The leaders of this joyous movement are the princess’s bodyguard (whose role has grown larger and larger in the course of the chronicled events, and who becomes the island’s first President) and Sami Pasha (who has decided to disobey the sultan’s order to leave his post).

Now it is time for full-scale “Mingherianization”—a happy festival-of-becoming that has, in fact, suffused the entire novel. (Pamuk seems to work on the assumption that you can never have too much Mingherianization.) Streets and squares will have to be renamed, and a new flag found. The teaching of Mingherian must be developed and expanded, so that it can become the island’s lingua franca. Soon, however, Chief Scrutineer Mazhar Effendi, the ruthless spymaster, stages a coup, names himself the new President, and sends the princess and her husband packing, on the same boat they arrived in at the start of the novel: the three-dimensional fairy tale is circularly complete. Though not quite, because a sparkling postscript, supposedly written in 2021 by the princess’s great-granddaughter Mîna Mingher (note the surname), brings the island’s history up to date. Mîna, a scholar and an author of the academic study “Mingherianization and Its Consequences,” informs us that President Mazhar went on to rule for thirty-one years, maintaining a punitive and militaristic regime. Mingheria was formally recognized by the United Nations in 1947. There are quick but potent references to the Armenian genocide (a charged topic for Pamuk, since in 2005 the Turkish state threatened the novelist with imprisonment for talking publicly about it), to Atatürk, and to the darker side of Mingherianization, which apparently involved prohibiting the teaching of the island’s Ottoman and Greek history, and dispatching dissenters to camps. In the nineteen-eighties, a military regime took charge of the island, and from 1984 to 2000 Mîna Mingher herself was banned from entering the country. Mîna tells us that she has inherited her mother’s “Mingherian fascination,” and dotingly describes the island’s old streets and haunts, the Arkaz of her childhood and of her mother’s young life. She is assisted in this nostalgic task by a chap called Orhan Pamuk, who is described as “the novelist and history enthusiast Orhan Pamuk.”

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