This is the first book I’ve read by Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006. It sounded fascinating – a murder mystery set on a fictional Mediterranean island during an outbreak of plague at the turn of the 20th century. However, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting!
It would be easy to assume that this was a book written in response to the Covid pandemic (I certainly did), but it seems that Pamuk actually started work on Nights of Plague in 2016. Obviously now that we’ve all had experience of living through a pandemic, that element of the novel has taken on new relevance, but it’s made clear that the illness described in the book is a form of bubonic plague rather than a respiratory virus like Covid, so the causes, symptoms, methods of transmission and outcomes are very different. On the other hand, there are also lots of parallels – in 1901, just like in 2020, with no vaccine available the only way to really tackle the progress of the disease is through quarantine and isolation. People protest against the restrictions, members of government break their own rules, and while the crisis brings some communities together it creates division in others.
The fictional island at the heart of all of this is Mingheria, an outpost of the Ottoman Empire with a population made up of both Turkish Muslims and Greek Christians. The governor, Sami Pasha, is doing his best to implement quarantine measures on the island but they are having little effect and he is being held back by having to wait for official orders from the Sultan in Istanbul. As the novel opens, a ship is on its way to Mingheria from Istanbul carrying the Sultan’s niece Princess Pakize, her husband Doctor Nuri, and the Royal Chemist, Bonkowski Pasha. Bonkowski’s job is to investigate the outbreak of plague, but before he is able to draw any conclusions he is murdered.
With Bonkowski Pasha dead, it’s now up to Doctor Nuri to give advice on quarantine arrangements, while also looking into the circumstances of the chemist’s murder. The Sultan, who has become a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, sends instructions that he must use ‘the methods of Sherlock Holmes’. There’s the basis of an exciting story here – yet the mystery element is virtually abandoned until much later in the novel and even when we return to it, it turns out not to be all that exciting after all. Much more time is spent describing the plague and the attempts to get the outbreak under control. With Covid in mind, I found this quite interesting to read about, but the book is written in such a factual and impersonal style it might as well have been non-fiction. There’s a reason for the dry style – we are told at the beginning that the whole book is supposed to be a history of Mingheria compiled by a modern day historian based on letters sent by Princess Pakize to her sister – but it means the book isn’t much fun to read, there’s not a lot of dialogue and there are pages and pages of exposition.
I felt that what Orhan Pamuk was really trying to do was tell the story of the final years of the Ottoman Empire through the lens of Mingheria’s plague response and the political change that follows on the island as a result. He has a lot to say about national identity, the reclaiming of the Mingherian language (almost forgotten as those who once spoke it grow old and die), the challenges of breaking away from rule by a larger power and the tensions between different religious groups who share the same small island.
So, lots of interesting ideas and themes in this book, but I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed reading it. It was far too long and slow and needed some editing, in my opinion. Ekin Oklap’s translation seemed fine – I think my problems were due to the overall style and pace of the book. I did become quite immersed in it after a while, but I was pleased to reach the end and I think a non-fiction book about the fall of the Ottoman Empire might have been a better use of my time! I don’t know whether this novel is typical of Orhan Pamuk’s work but I’m not really tempted to read any more just yet.
Thanks to Faber and Faber Ltd for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
Book #62 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.