It helps to be reminded from time to time that literature, all other objectives aside, is at bottom storytelling. And Turkish Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel Nights of Plague is storytelling so luxuriant that one cannot help but soak in it.
Set in 1900—that is, both fin-de-siècle and fin d’empire—Mingheria, a largely forgotten (and entirely fictional) Ottoman island province lying between Rhodes and Crete, Nights of Plague tells the story of how the coming of the plague led to a revolution and independence. This all sounds quite serious, but one can detect the authorial tongue in cheek even in the grimmer parts of the novel.
The novel, one part murder mystery, starts with the Byzantine relationships of the Ottoman ruling family. Princess Pakize, “third daughter of the thirty-third Ottoman sultan Murad V” (who had deposed his uncle before being deposed in short order by his half-brother Abdul Hamid), is traveling on a ship bound for China with her new husband, the plague and quarantine expert Nuri Bey, patriarchally yet felicitously chosen for her by her unloved uncle Sultan Abdul Hamid. Princess Pakize had been kept under house arrest, along with father and sisters, for almost her entire life until let out just before the three young women were married off.
They make a pit stop in Mingheria that coincides with the clandestine visit of Nuri Bey’s one-time mentor, “Chief Inspector of Public Health and Sanitation, the renowned chemist and pharmacist Bonkowski Pasha” to deal with the bubonic plague that had recently broken out there. The contented newlyweds push on, but Nuri Bey is recalled to Mingheria when Bonkowski Pasha is murdered.
Attempts to deal with the plague lead, somewhat haphazardly and almost accidentally, to a declaration of independence, which Abdul Hamid can’t do anything about for the Great Powers had blockaded Mingheria to prevent plague from escaping. The Princess Pakize and her consort Nuri Bey become drawn in to the ensuing social and political drama as protagonists.
Nights of Plague leads off with an epigram drawn from War & Peace, as well it might, since it has both a Tolstoyan length and Tolstoyan cast of characters. But like much else, Pamuk delivers this with a wink.
The world outside Mingheria is quite real: Abdul Hamid really did have a penchant for Sherlock Holmes novels and really did sent a delegation to China, on the request of German Kaiser Wilhelm II, to try to dissuade Chinese Muslim troops from taking part in the Boxer Rebellion. Princess Hatice, to whom Pakize writes the regular letters on which the novel is ostensibly based, was also real. But, via the plague and blockade, Pamuk seals the fictional Mingeria off from the world (much as he did Kars with a snowstorm in his earlier novel Snow), allowing it to develop without interference. The link between the two worlds is the (also fictional) Princess Pakize.
Pamuk creates for Mingheria a backstory so infuriatingly plausible that one is continually sent off to Wikipedia in vain to try to work out what he has based any given aspect of it on. The island’s mixed Greek/Turkish population could be based on several islands in the region, but independence sets it apart, as does its native Mingherian language, which is apparently Indo-European:
Akva (meaning “water”) is the oldest and most beautiful of all Mingherian words, and has spread—starting of course with Latin—from Mingherian to all the languages of southern Europe.
while the people themselves, some of them anyway, are
direct descendants of the ancient tribe of Mingherians who broke away thousands of years ago from their original homelands north of the modern-day Aral Sea and came to settle here.
But—Pamuk perhaps winking at the tendency of archaeologists, linguists and historians to let national narratives affect their findings—the details remain a bit hazy.
The conceit of Nights of Plague is that it was written as “both a historical novel and a history written in the form of a novel” by an academic, Mîna Mingher, a descendant of Princess Pakize, based on the latter’s letters to her sister. Mina rarely intrudes into the actual story—which could perhaps have eschewed this outside framing—but it allows Pamuk to hide details until he is ready and to include repetitions for effect: after all, it’s not Pamuk writing this, is it? Any narrative failings belong to this Mina (who is nevertheless an acquaintance of “novelist and history enthusiast Orhan Pamuk”).
Pamuk creates an entire world, redolent of roses, sea and linden trees, even when also filled with disease-ridden corpses. The novel itself is preceded by a hand-drawn map of the island’s capital, but his powers of description are such that one needn’t refer to it. The characters are, except for the sensible and sensitive Princess Pakize and her rather stolid husband Nuri Bey, quirky; even the most villainous seem to have a good side. That this is a translation hardly registers: the version in Ekin Oklap’s English is rolling, jaunty and atmospheric.
But there is more to Nights of Plague than a good story and memorable characters. Covid arrived during the writing; there is much in the novel that appears to reflect the current rather than (just) the historical pandemic, from details on the implementation of quarantine regulations, arguments about its source and the cutting off of international travel to a discussion as to whether the plague was airborne rather that merely transmitted by rat-borne fleas.
More deeply however, Nights of Plague is a discussion of identity and nationalism. It is the presence of the non-Greek, non-Turkish Mingherian identity that both allows independence without falling back on either Turkey or Greece and, as consequence, without the level of communal violence that accompanied the unraveling of the Ottoman Empire elsewhere. Mingherian nationalism, in effect, heads off both Turkish and Greek nationalism, and keeps the Great Powers at bay. The isolation caused by the plague in turn allowed political developments and realignments that would not have happened otherwise. Fiction surely, but a thought experiment nonetheless, and a timely one at that.