Nights of Plague by Orhan Pamuk review – a playful approach to big themes

The reader is cast as detective, in this ludic novel about nationalism, pandemics and propaganda, set in the latter days of the Ottoman empire

Orhan Pamuk likes to play new games. Every one of his books has differed markedly from the others, yet each shares a capacity for disconcerting the reader. This one is long and intellectually capacious. It tackles big subjects: nationalism and the way nations are imagined into being; ethnic and religious conflict; the decline of an empire; the political repercussions of a pandemic. It includes many deaths.

Yet, for all the weight of its subject matter, its tone is lightly ironic, arch, even flippant. It has many flaws. It is repetitive; it contains far too much exposition. All the same – formally and in terms of content – it is one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year.

Pamuk is hiding behind two masks, two assumed female voices. He is also an impressionist, trying out other period-appropriate authors’ personae. There are overt allusions to Dumas and Tolstoy, echoes of Joseph Conrad, of Gilbert and Sullivan and Edgar Allan Poe. Sherlock Holmes is frequently invoked. The Sultan is a big fan, and has urged Nuri to discover who killed the Royal Chemist using the “Sherlock method” of logical deduction. (Sami Pasha finds torturing the usual suspects more effective.)

The novel’s chronology is as far from straightforward as its narrative strategy. The clock in Mingheria’s central post office shows two different times simultaneously. Time pleats. People think back to their childhoods. Mina looks forward to their futures, reflecting on what historians will make of the events she is describing. Phrases such as “It would later be revealed” or “Our readers will discover” recur. There are premonitions and spoilers. Strands of the plot are set up as whodunnits, only for the answer to be given offhandedly and too soon. Characters’ back stories are introduced late, sometimes at disproportionate length. Our layered narrators seem to keep forgetting what we know already, or don’t know at all. The Pilgrim Ship Mutiny is referred to several times before we are told about it. Every piece of action is subjected to reprises from different points of view. It is confusing, I think deliberately so. This is a novel whose structure is not like scaffolding, more like a very complex piece of knitting.

Pamuk (and/or Mina) flout the normal rules of storytelling; the mantra “show, don’t tell” is completely ignored. When a pair of newlyweds are at last alone together, he says to her, “First let me tell you of the state the international quarantine establishment finds itself in’”, and does so, at great length. “Allow me to digress,” says another character. He needn’t have asked permission – in this fictional world, digression is the norm. And yet none of these infringements of literary convention seems to matter much when set against the exuberance of Pamuk’s invention.

Pamuk has often written indirectly about Turkey’s nationalist revolution, and got into trouble with the Turkish authorities for doing so. This book can be read as a playful variation on the theme. More obviously it is a novel about a community ravaged by an incurable disease. It talks – in many different voices – about enforced isolation and lockdown. It tracks the way an epidemic justifies authoritarian measures, providing another way for Pamuk to make a veiled comment on Turkey’s current regime. It will inevitably be seen as his Covid novel, and yet, for all its rows of corpses, it seldom sounds a tragic note. Rather, it is a compendium of literary experiments, ludic, audacious, exasperating and entertaining.

In 1901, a man in a major’s uniform agleam with medals steps on to the balcony of a government building and brandishes a flag. Blood is spurting from a bullet wound in his arm but, undaunted, he cries out to the crowd assembled beneath him: “From this moment on, our land is free. Long live the Mingherian nation, long live liberty!”

Fifty-eight years later, a little girl repeats those words to her great-grandmother. The child has learned in primary school about her nation’s birth. She has memorised poems about it. She has seen pictures – all, remarks the narrator sardonically, “clearly influenced by Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People ’”. There are trinket shops full of souvenirs based on those images. She has visited the museum devoted to the Heroic Commander.

What young Mina has been taught, though, deviates from what we readers know. She thinks there were thousands of people assembled beneath the balcony. We know there were a measly few – most of the major’s intended audience having been deterred by terror of catching bubonic plague. The child believes the major was holding a national flag stitched by patriotic village girls. We know it was a banner initially designed to advertise rose-scented hand cream.

Mingheria is a fictional island, lying somewhere between Crete and Cyprus and sharing aspects of both islands’ history. It is part of the ailing Ottoman empire. The population is divided roughly equally between Turkish Muslims and Greek Christians. The governor is the easy-going Sami Pasha, whose career as a colonial official has been disappointing and of whom readers are likely, despite his occasional cruelty, to become rather fond.

The first cases of plague have been hushed up. The Sultan’s Royal Chemist has been dispatched from Istanbul to take charge. Soon after he arrives, he is murdered. To take his place, the Sultan’s niece Princess Pakize and her epidemiologist husband, Dr Nuri, arrive; Nuri is to take charge of quarantine, Pakize to write long letters to her sister. Those letters, you may suppose, will constitute the narrative. But no, Pamuk is doing something more complicated. The novel we are reading, so we are informed in a preface, is written by Mina in 2017, drawing on Pakize’s letters and other contradictory sources.

There’s no shortage of those. Mingheria is full of informers and spies. The Chief Scrutineer is the most powerful of government officers and when his files come into the possession of Pakize and Nuri, they demonstrate how omnipresent his agents have been. Besides, many of the story’s participants have written their memoirs. The imaginary Mina makes use of these imaginary sources and of her own imagination. Nights of Plague is historical fiction, but no one in it is claiming to own the historical truth.