While the wave hasn’t quite hit yet, there’s no doubt that at some point there’ll be a tsunami of books chronicling life during the pandemic, and today’s represents one of the first of those works, appearing in the original language last year (either that, or it’s a very happy coincidence on the part of the author!). Which is not to say that it’s a novel taking a straight look at what has unfolded over the past few years. Instead, the writer has taken in what was going on and adapted it into a very different tale, showing us that while times change, human nature, and the way we react in times of danger, is surprisingly constant…
Orhan Pamuk’s Nights of Plague (translated by Ekin Oklap, review copy courtesy of Penguin Hamish Hamilton) takes us back to 1901, with a trip to Mingheria, an island dominion of the Ottoman Empire. Back in Instanbul, rumours of an outbreak of plague in Mingheria’s main town of Arkaz have made the rounds, so Bonkowski Pasha, Inspector of Public Health and Sanitation, is dispatched to the island to investigate.
The same ship happens to be carrying Princess Pakize, the niece of the Sultan, and her husband, Prince Consort Doctor Nuri, who are on their way to China on a diplomatic mission. However, once they reach Alexandria, having dropped the Pasha off in Mingheria, a message awaits: the couple must return to the island, where Doctor Nuri will help lead the fight against the now-confirmed plague. But what happened to Dr. Bonkowski? Well, as it turns out, he’s been murdered…
Pamuk’s latest big story, coming in at just under seven-hundred pages, is a multi-faceted work, then. The cover, the stylised back-cover shock quote (“Plague is not the only killer.“), and the first parts of the book, point to a literary thriller, with the outsiders sent to the island in danger of attacks from locals feeling threatened by any suggestion of restrictions or changes to their lifestyle. In the early chapters, there are several mentions of the Sultan’s obsession with Sherlock Holmes, and we learn that Doctor Nuri has been sent to the island both in a medical capacity and to investigate the crime.
In truth, though, this murder soon proves to be merely a means of introducing the main players to the stage, and the focus soon shifts. Instead, we see an island struggling with an outbreak of a deadly disease, with authorities struggling to contain it given the natives’ reluctance to, well, do anything they’re told. As Doctor Nuri comments:
Quarantine is the art of educating the public in spite of itself, and of teaching it the skill of self-preservation.
p.141 (Hamish Hamilton, 2022)
Alas, in practice, it’s not all that simple. As the death toll rises, tempers do, too, and it’s inevitable that heads will be lost, and that heads will roll.
For anyone who has lived through the COVID-19 years, it’s almost impossible to read Nights of Plague as anything but a veiled examination of recent history. The false complacency and frequent misinformation, with political needs trumping sensible health requirements, makes the task of reining in the plague a tricky one:
Nobody ever wants a quarantine, not governors or mayors, not shopkeepers nor the rich. Nobody wants to accept that the comfortable lives they are accustomed to might suddenly come to an end, let alone that they might die. They will reject any evidence that disrupts their usual ways, they will deny any deaths, and even resent the dead. (pp.299/300)
Every time the authorities attempt to implement lockdowns, there are mass protests, and as the months pass, there are also shortages of disinfectant and food. Yes, at times, it was uncannily like being in Melbourne during the winters of 2020 and 2021 (just without the focus on toilet rolls…).
The story is told as a frame narrative, with the modern-day narrator being an academic with a connection to the island, and to one of the protagonists. They’re purportedly constructing the story from academic sources, as well as the Princess’ letters:
I was able to verify the authenticity of the world described in Princess Pakize’s letters by consulting archives in Istanbul, England, and France and by reviewing historical documents and memoirs from the era. (pp.4/5)
Of course, this is where I have to point out that (gasp!) none of this is true, if only for the reason that Mingheria is entirely fictional…
The advantage of the broad canvas Pamuk has allowed himself in Nights of Plague is the world-building this enables. He’s certainly thrown himself into the task, with lengthy descriptions of Arkaz, and even a detailed map of the town. This all helps to pull the reader into his imaginary realm, and I’m sure I won’t be the only one to completely buy into his flight of fancy (and fantasy). In addition to the detailed setting, we’re gifted a sizeable cast of doctors, governors, functionaries and soldiers, some of whom we’ll come to love – others, not so much. Unfortunately, many of them will meet the same, grim fate.
It has to be said, though, that, as with other Pamuk books (e.g. A Strangeness in My Mind), this leisurely pace is both a strength and a weakness. As well as carefully colouring in the pictures he’s drawing, the writer can drag the story out a little too much at times. On occasion, the return to the current-day narrator, who wants to tell us more about their research, can be jarring, and there’s also a tendency for them to foreshadow, revealing that characters don’t have long to live, or informing us of later consequences of certain actions. Personally, I could have done without that, and I felt it distracted from the narrative at times.
However, I’m being a little picky there; in truth I thoroughly enjoyed the week I spent on Mingheria, watching the struggles of the island’s natives from afar, and perhaps the most notable aspect of Nights of Plague is that I haven’t actually mentioned what the book is really about. You see, the murders are just to get you hooked, and the plague is merely the backdrop to the real story. Cleverly, Pamuk has another topic in mind, and this only becomes clear half-way through the novel. What is it? Well, that would be telling. Rest assured that it all makes perfect sense, and that it lifts Nights of Plague from a simple account of an epidemic into something more accomplished, and a book well worth spending some time on…
…say, during a lockdown 😉