Almost two decades ago, and two years before the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize in Literature, Margaret Atwood defined his “longtime project” as “narrating his country into being”. She was reviewing his novel Snow. That project continues apace, and with his latest novel, Nights of Plague — set primarily in the first decade of the 20th century in an imaginary land — he continues to pose questions for his country, and beyond. But in a coincidence (or feat of supreme writerly prescience, call it what you will), Pamuk also places a pandemic at the heart of the novel.
It is 1901. The Ottoman Empire’s Chief Inspector of Public Health and Sanitation, Bonkowski Pasha, is on his way to one of its states, the island of Mingheria, the “pearl of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea”. The microbe that has caused devastation in different parts of Asia has hit the empire’s 29th state, and as he tells a select few of his fellow travellers on the ship headed eventually for China, “The situation is much graver than what is being written.” He underlines the secrecy of his mission by adding that the authorities in Istanbul and in Mingheria see the claims about a plague outbreak as “a political trap”.
Listening carefully are Princess Pakize, niece of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, and her newly-wedded husband, Doctor Nuri Bey, a quarantine doctor. The couple are ostensibly on their way to China, but a combination of murder, intrigue and circumstance will make them integral to the island’s fortunes, and eventual independence. But how is this story of Mingheria — of repression and revolution, of tradition and modernity, of disease and human nature, of nationalism and myth-making, of censorship and the liberating art of the novel — to be told?
The mysteries of Mingheria
Later, a report on July 1, 1901 in the French newspaper Le Figaro sums it up like this: “The little Ottoman island of Mingheria, situated in the Eastern Mediterranean and famous for its marble and roses, has declared independence. For the last nine weeks, the island, whose population of eighty thousand is split evenly between Christians and Muslims, has been gripped by a terrible outbreak of plague.” It talks of the island’s local Quarantine Authority failing to control the outbreak, of the island’s recent history of revolts against “harsh quarantine regulations”, of violence during the revolution.
Nights of Plague
Pamuk’s narrator, who introduces herself as the historian Mina Mingher, flags falsehoods and exaggeration in the report. It is just one instance of the caution she advises against capsuling history in neat narrations, as her account, “from many different points of view”, deepens the story. Mingher is an inventive storyteller, and at the outset, in a preface, she says, “This is both a historical novel and a history written in the form of a novel.” She even professes familiarity with “Pamuk” in the course of the novel (for instance: “… fondness for museums is another interest I share with the novelist Pamuk”.)
Such metafiction is familiar in Pamuk’s work, but in Nights of Plague, it is particularly intriguing, and makes the mysteries in the novel more obsessive, and demanding on the curious reader’s attentiveness. In a first for me, I guiltily tried to download the Kindle version alongside to more conveniently use the search facility to go back to previous mentions of certain characters or events. Thankfully, this shortcut was not available to me as the e-book was not yet available in India, and I had to reread previous chapters as Mingher’s (and Pamuk’s) “patient reader” is meant to.
The “patient reader” is amply rewarded for this back-and-forth while getting to the end of the novel; to be sure, the structure of the richly detailed novel sets up the reader for it.