The past is an even stranger country to contemporary writers and readers than it was to Leo Tolstoy and his contemporaries. It might be the consequence of the academic indexing of the genre of “historical fiction”, or it might be due to the heavy surge of changes over the last hundred years which has left nothing recognisable, but almost all “historical novels” being written now seem awkwardly torn between the historian’s urge to explain and the novelist’s urge to narrate.
Nights of Plague
Penguin Hamish Hamilton, October 2022
Price: Rs. 799
In Nights of Plague, Orhan Pamuk cannot resist either of these two urges, but, being the accomplished writer that he is, he fashions a device to accommodate them. That device is the narrator of the novel, Mîna Mingher, who attaches a preface explaining how she, a historian, was “asked to annotate and prepare for publication one hundred and thirteen letters that Princess Pakize, third daughter of the thirty-third Ottoman sultan Murad V, had written to her older sister Hatice Sultan between 1901 and 1913.” The novel, explains Mingher, grew out of that endeavour. The narrative device of Mingher enables Pamuk to mix information and discussion about the past with stories about the characters of the novel, even at times pre-empting the reader’s curiosity and revealing the sad end of a particular character much before the event is reached in the novel.
Despite employing an academic historian as the narrator, the tone of much of the novel remains conversational and, if one may say so, vernacular. What one breathes in is not the stale air of a library. Instead, despite the terrors of plague and politics that inform the action, one is left with the feeling of having taken a leisurely, meandering walk along the sea when one finally finishes reading this 682-page novel. Whether this is the impression that Pamuk had intended might be open to question, because actually there are disturbing similarities between the story narrated and our own times: an epidemic, manipulative media, ignorant and superstitious reactions by the masses, resistance to quarantine rules, religious hatred, devious national and international politics and, of course, ambitious leaders.
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The novel begins in 1901 with the royal ship, Azizye, stealing into the harbours of Mingheria, a fictional island that Pamuk describes as the twenty-ninth state of the embattled Ottoman Empire. Azizye is on its way to China, carrying the newly married Princess Pakize and her husband, Doctor Nuri, who are intended to lead a “Caliphate” delegation to convince the Muslims of China to follow quarantine regulations. But it has detoured to Mingheria to drop Bonkowski Pasha, who is the Ottoman Emperor Sultan Abdul Hamid’s royal chemist and trusted plague expert.
There have been rumours of the plague having reached Mingheria, and Bonkowski Pasha has been deputed to verify it and fight it, if required. This is important for Sultan Hamid, as outbreaks of the plague, blamed on the Haj pilgrimage routes by the great powers of Europe, have been and can be used to barricade the Ottoman Empire or balkanise its outer states. Turkey is literally “the sick man of Europe.” It is under pressure from the more “enlightened” European powers, even as commercial Haj ships from the British Empire bring cramped loads of starving, ailing and ill-treated pilgrims to Mecca, weakened by the voyage and susceptible to all kinds of illnesses, ranging from cholera outbreaks to the plague.
Plague and politics
As half of Mingheria is Muslim and the other half belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church, Sultan Hamid fears that a plague outbreak on the island will cause him serious difficulties with European powers. The problems in Mingheria are exacerbated by the existence of a religious sect led by a Muslim preacher who is highly resistant to scientific thought; frequent hostilities between Muslims and Christians; and a Governor who has for too long been playing short-term power politics by pitting groups and bandits against one another. When Bonkowski Pasha is murdered — is the crime committed by Muslims opposed to quarantine measures, locals who believe that Bonkowski, as a Europeanised agent, brought the plague with him, or agent provocateurs out to sabotage the Ottoman Empire? — Prince Pakize and her doctor husband are ordered to return to Mingheria. Doctor Nuri is not only Bonkowski Pasha’s replacement in the fight against the epidemic but also expected to solve the murder mystery.
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Pamuk’s novel, then, is something of a crime mystery as well as a historical novel, though the former aspect, which usually craves much precision, fades against the expanse of its broad and meandering historical format. Nights of Plague provides at times fascinating portraits of a strange time and a foreign land, and simultaneously reminds us how entirely familiar we are in our own totally different age with the fears, tensions and forces narrated in it. Because Princess Pakize is actually Sultan Hamid’s niece—her father was deposed by a coup of kingmakers many years ago and is kept confined to a palace by the Sultan—she becomes an interesting, and critical, commentator on the status quo from inside. As the novel proceeds, and the European powers impose their threatened barricade, the Major appointed as her bodyguard, who comes from the island, gets involved in nationalist stirrings which finally lead to the independence of the island.
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There is an unusual amount of repetition in the novel. Some of this is obviously by choice, for Pamuk seems to want to convey an impression of the past as much more uncertain and open than it seems to be when recorded in history books: this requires a meandering narrative and some repetitiveness. At times though, the repetitiveness strikes one as odd, at least in English translation — for instance, when we are informed twice within ten lines that Princess Pakize was less pretty than her older sisters. As noted earlier, one is left with the impression of a leisurely walk by the seaside: terrible waves do crash in our hearing, but strangely they do not disturb us. We turn one page after another, stopping a bit here, walking a bit faster there. This feeling left me partly dissatisfied, but it might not be a bad thing given the “literary” tenor of the times: it might actually get Nights of Plague many more readers.
Tabish Khair is an Indian novelist and academic who teaches in Denmark.
- Orhan Pamuk’s latest book, Nights of Plague, is both a crime thriller and historical fiction.
- Pamuk employs the device of a historian narrator which allows him to both tell his story and explain its historical context.
- The book’s tone is conversational and the narrative has a meandering quality.
- The book has disturbing similarities with the pandemic situation that the world has lived through in the past two years.