"Nights of Plague" by Orhan Pamuk

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Translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap

Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk constructs 79 chapters—plus preface and 50-page epilogue—recounting an outbreak of plague in a fictional Mediterranean island in 1901. Along the way he portrays authoritarian government tactics in suppressing its population; backward religious scruples proscribing life-saving modern medicine; and the jingoistic tendency of inferior historians to hew their stories to align with beloved legends, and thereby to get things hilariously wrong. It’s an impressive rendering of an ingenious and captivating tale.

In the fictional eastern Mediterranean island of Mingheria, which at the beginning of 1901 is a province of the Ottoman Empire, bubonic plague breaks out, and the imperial  government in Istanbul sends a medical official, a doctor celebrated in political as well as medical circles, to impose a quarantine. News of his arrival spreads quickly on the island, but he is very soon summarily despatched, murdered by a faction that wants no measures taken against the epidemic nor anything else to do with modern medicine.

We soon learn that this violence stems from some combination of Islamic teaching and a desire to intimidate the Orthodox Greeks—half the island’s population— into leaving and returning to Greece. The authorities then send another doctor, a Muslim, one famous for his administration of quarantines in other Ottoman provinces, and this one is newly married to an out-of-favor Ottoman princess. He labors mightily with the provincial governor to bring both the fundamentalist fanatics and the disease under control.

Through a series of unlikely events which nonetheless lead to inevitable human responses, the Mingherians cut themselves off from all communications from the Ottoman empire, declare their independence, and set up a new government. Before very long, the work of controlling the epidemic is shot to hell when a leading sheikh stages a coup and becomes briefly the head of state. All quarantine measures are abolished and the plague increases in virulence and begins a new terrible rampage through the population.

In describing these events, Pamuk demonstrates his mastery of human motivation and emotion; he holds up for our edification the idiocy, the venality, and the lust for power which drive politics. To get a flavor for his tone and stance toward these proceedings, understand that the governor leans heavily on a secret police service called the “Scrutinia,” and its director is called the “Chief Scrutineer.” His take on government ethics is an oppressive classic: in Mingheria, political enemies are routinely arrested and held without charge or due process. The sectarian regime which briefly holds power looks very much the same.

I felt for a time while reading that the story was a miniature treatment of the Ottoman Empire itself, a microcosm. The author mentions more than once that the empire was referred to as “The Sick Man of Europe,” and I took the pestilence as a stand-in for the decay that infected it. But the issues of authoritarianism, and the utter failure of regimes which take their legitimacy from religion, are much bigger than one outdated empire. They are for all time, in all places.

Pamuk wraps his story up in a framework of a serious historian working with primary sources, and thus adds a clever layer of play for the reader: the light, almost tongue-in-cheek tone of the preface contrasts with the serious theme of the strife between the old and hackneyed against the new and proven. He also wants to poke fun at the writing of history, by presenting an apparently rigorous treatment of what happened and how these events represent a confluence of historical forces, while also poking jabs at how often history is simply a colorful embellishing of outright falsehoods.

I’m impressed that this author can clothe such a sustained narrative in garments of fancy, while still weighing in so bluntly on superstition, murderous greed, and official criminality. Clearly it holds manifold attractions for today’s discerning reader. Its depth and breadth lead to length, but the sustained energy and interest are also quite worth it.



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