BOOK REVIEW: Nights of Plague by Orhan Pamuk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Too soon? I’m interested to see how this brilliant novel does, not because anyone will question that it’s a well-crafted story but because it’s definitely less escapist in the wake of the COVID pandemic. Ordinarily, it would have all the emotional distance of historical fiction. However, here we have a novel set around the turn of the twentieth century, and it features the conspiracy theorists, the science deniers, the pandemic opportunists, and those prone to whistle through the graveyard as a disease eats their community alive – i.e. characters with whom we are now all too familiar.
The novel takes place on the fictional island of Mingheria in the Aegean (Mediterranean) Sea between Turkey and Greece during the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. Given its geography, Mingheria is a potential powder keg under the best of circumstances, being about half Greek Christian and half Turkish Muslim, both of whom overwhelm a group who identify primarily as Mingherian and who want to establish their own state, reflecting a primacy of Mingherian identity. (Not unlike those Kashmiris who want an independent Kashmir because they see their problem not as being a Muslim – Hindu one, but rather an India – Pakistan one.) While the story is full of both Mingherian domestic and international politics, it’s the plague that drives everything, or – more accurately – fearful (and often ill-advised) responses to the plague.
At the heart of the story are Princess Pakize and her husband, Doctor Nuri. The couple is diverted to Mingheria while sailing to China. The reason the Sultan changes their itinerary is two-fold: first, to fight a worsening outbreak of bubonic plague, and, second, to learn who killed the last doctor sent to lead the quarantine response, Dr. Bonkowski. (Bonkowski was a well-regarded medical expert who is killed by unknown perpetrators in the early chapters of the book.) As Nuri is engaged in public health matters and the Princess is occupied by writing letters to her sister and contemplating Bonkowski’s demise, they are swept up in events that will ultimately lead to a revolution and coup d’état. When those who oppose the public health measures (e.g. prohibition of Muslim funerary bath rituals) gain control, the epidemic swells to horrific proportions. As in Pamuk’s excellent novel, Snow, the tension between modern / progressive forces and religious traditionalists is ever present (not unexpected given Turkey’s long history of conflict between reformers and fundamentalists.)
This book is compelling and, in the wake of the COVID pandemic, makes a profound commentary on how far we haven’t come.
View all my reviews