An Empire Collapses: Nights of Plague, by Orhan Pamuk, review

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plague nights

Orhan Pamuk, translated by Ekin Oklap

Faberp. 704£20

Welcome to Mingheria, ‘pearl of the Levant’. On a spring day, at the dawn of the 20th century, you disembark on this “calm and charming island” south of Rhodes from a comfortable steamer after sailing from Smyrna, Piraeus or Alexandria. A crew of Greek or Muslim boatmen will take you to the picturesque port of Arkaz, flanked by the radiant White Mountain and the dark turrets of the medieval castle.

The scents of honeysuckle, linden and famous Mingher roses float on azure seas. Admire ancient churches and newer mosques, the neo-classical State Hall, grand buildings funded by the Sultan’s government in faraway Istanbul. Savor figs, oil, nuts and cheeses in the bustling markets. As for those rumors of banditry by Orthodox or Islamist renegades in the bare hills: mischievous chatter. Infection? You won’t find any disease here…

Orhan Pamuk started writing his tenth novel in 2016. In 2020, reality caught up with the Turkish Nobel laureate. plague nights
chronicles eight months of plague, confinement and terror on a fictional Aegean island. In 1901, an epidemic of plague struck its people – an equal number of Christians and Muslims – while the tottering and panicked Ottoman state lost its grip.

In his novels of Istanbul then and now, Pamuk relishes meticulous and immersive world-building. He rebuilt the city street by street, smell by smell, brick by brick. On 700 pages, he does the same for the imaginary Mingheria. His dream island is home to a “three-dimensional fairy tale” – the backdrop for a densely hatched parable not only of an epidemic and its consequences, but also of nationalism, modernity and the identity of band. Along the way, he discovers “mysterious links…between history and objects, nations and writing”.

Pamuk presents his diary of a plague year as an account compiled by a modern historian from letters written by Princess Pakize. She is the invented daughter of the current Ottoman Sultan Murad V, who in 1876 was deposed and detained in the palace by his reformist but authoritarian brother Abdul Hamid II. Raised in a golden cage, Pakize finds a kind of release in marriage to the progressive “doctor and prince consort” Nuri. After the murder on Mingheria of the head of the Ottoman public health, Bonkowski Pasha, Nuri and Pakize are sent there. They must hunt down the culprits and fight a rampant epidemic that the weakened empire wants to deny.

Back in Istanbul, Abdul Hamid devours detective novels (as he really did). The rebel provinces break away; the Imperial card “keeps shrinking”. On Mingheria, the “methods of Sherlock Holmes” and scientific epidemiology compete with cruder investigative measures (arbitrary detention, mass isolation, flogging and incineration). New brains and old brawn collide in the search for both Bonkowski’s shadowy killers and the sources of the plague.

The stricken Mingheria becomes a microcosm of Ottoman twilight. As the death toll mounts, the island’s kind and conciliatory governor, Sami Pasha – with his two-dial pocket watch that tells the time in both Western and Ottoman fashion – sees the authority slip away. The wealthy Greeks fled. Suspicious Muslims, inflamed by sectarians, revolt against confinement: “No one ever wants a quarantine. From the lodges of the “charlatan sheikhs” to the damp cells where the victims of the “chief scrutineer” Mazhar Effendi shiver, Pamuk stuffs his Mingherian map with precise, almost obsessive details. It thickens the texture but slows the pace. Ekin Oklap’s cleverly worded translation captures our historian’s meticulously pedantic, sometimes turtle-footed storytelling. Take it easy, though, and the island saga can exert the hypnotic pull of those historical soap operas that Turkish television does so well.

In this “period of anarchy”, the agitation turns into insurrection, both religious and secular. The rise of Mingherian ‘romantic nationalism’, led by the dashing Major Kâmil, enabled Pamuk to hurl underhanded barbed darts at the official Turkish cult of Ataturk. On the reborn island, the mystique of a holy nation and its unique language make the assertion of Mingherian identity “as sacred as an act of prayer”.

Soon “nationalist fervor blurs the boundaries between…myth and reality”. Minghérie becomes an island of ideas, twinned with Atlantis or Utopia. Yet the novel also traces the grotesque progression of the plague as faith and science clash: the sheikhs’ “esoteric knowledge” on one side, “germs and Lysol” on the other. Palace coups and popular uprisings multiply as the plague summer repeats, at high speed and in miniature, the history of revolutionary times. A belated twist puts the princess and her doctor husband in the spotlight. On this “stage of world history”, Pakize will not waste his privileged life “standing in a corner like a withered rose”.

As he oscillates between saga and satire, mystery and pseudo-history, plague nights can feel as overloaded as an Arkaz boatman’s caique. Pamuk, however, exhibits charm and cunning as he keeps his bulky cargo afloat and moving. If this generous hybrid of epidemic soap opera and novel of ideas has calmed the patches, it stirs the senses and bends the spirit. You will be sad to leave the lavishly imagined Mingheria, where “a view of the sea and a trace of its fragrance” can always “make life worth living again”.

“Thank God life can finally get back to normal.”
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