EITHERrhan Pamuk likes to play new games. Each of her books has differed markedly from the others, but each shares the ability to baffle the reader. This one is long and intellectually broad. It tackles big issues: nationalism and the way nations are imagined; ethnic and religious conflict; the decline of an empire; The political repercussions of a pandemic. Includes many deaths.
However, despite all the weight of his subject, his tone is slightly ironic, mischievous and even frivolous. It has many flaws. It is repetitive; contains too much exposure. Anyway, formally and in terms of content, it is one of the most interesting books I have read this year.
In 1901, a man in a commander’s uniform resplendent with medals steps onto the balcony of a government building and brandishes a flag. Blood spurts from a gunshot wound to his arm but, undaunted, he shouts to the crowd gathered below him: “From this moment on, our land is free. Long live the mingherian nation, long live freedom!
Fifty-eight years later, a girl repeats those words to her great-grandmother. The girl has learned in elementary school about the birth of the nation from her. She has memorized poems about it. She has seen paintings, all of them, the narrator sarcastically comments, “clearly influenced by Liberty Leading the People by Delacroix‘”. There are trinket shops full of souvenirs based on those images. He has visited the museum dedicated to the Heroic Commander.
However, what young Mina has been taught deviates from what we readers know. She thinks there were thousands of people gathered under the balcony. We know there were a meager few: most of the major’s intended audience had been put off by the terror of contracting the bubonic plague. The boy believes that the older one was holding a national flag sewn by patriotic girls from the village. We know that it was a banner initially designed to advertise a rose-scented hand cream.
Mingheria is a fictional island that lies somewhere between Crete and Cyprus and shares aspects of the history of both islands. It is part of the Ottoman empire in crisis. The population is roughly equally divided between Turkish Muslims and Greek Christians. The governor is the quiet Sami Pasha, whose career as a colonial official has been disappointing and for whom readers, despite his occasional ruthlessness, are likely to grow quite fond.
The first cases of plague have been silenced. The sultan’s royal chemist has been dispatched from Istanbul to take charge. Shortly after his arrival, he is killed. To take his place, the Sultan’s niece, Princess Pakize, and her epidemiologist’s husband, Dr. Nuri, arrive; Nuri will take care of the quarantine, Pakize will write long letters to her sister. Those letters, you can guess, will make up the narrative. But no, Pamuk is doing something more complicated. The novel we are reading, so we are informed in a preface, is written by Mina in 2017, drawing inspiration from Pakize’s letters and other contradictory sources.
There is no shortage of those. Mingheria is full of informers and spies. The Chief Scrutineer is the most powerful of the government officials and when files on him come into the hands of Pakize and Nuri, they demonstrate just how omnipresent his agents have been. In addition, many of the story’s participants have written their memoirs. The Imaginary Mine uses these imaginary sources and its own imagination. Nights of Plague is historical fiction, but no one in it claims to have the historical truth.
Pamuk hides behind two masks, two supposed female voices. He is also an impressionist, trying out characters from other authors appropriate to the times. There are overt allusions to Dumas and Tolstoy, echoes of Joseph Conrad, Gilbert and Sullivan and Edgar Allan Poe. Sherlock Holmes is frequently invoked. The Sultan is a great admirer and has urged Nuri to find out who killed the royal chemist using the “Sherlock method” of logical deduction. (Sami Pasha finds it more effective to torture the usual suspects.)
The novel’s chronology is as far from straightforward as its narrative strategy. The clock at the central post office in Mingheria shows two different times simultaneously. Time folds. People think of their childhood. Mina looks forward to her future, pondering what historians will make of the events she is describing. Phrases like “It would be revealed later” or “Our readers will discover” are repeated. There are premonitions and spoilers. The plot threads are set up like whodunits, only for the answer to be given off the cuff and too soon. Character backstories are presented late, sometimes at disproportionate length. Our layered storytellers seem to keep forgetting what we already know, or don’t know at all. The Pilgrim Ship Mutiny is mentioned several times before we are told about it. Each action piece is subject to repetition from different points of view. It’s confusing, I think deliberately. This is a novel whose structure is not like a scaffolding, but more like a very complex fabric.
Pamuk (and/or Mina) flout the normal storytelling rules; the mantra “show, don’t tell” is completely ignored. When a pair of newlyweds are finally alone, he says to her, “First let me tell you about the state of the international quarantine establishment,” and he does so in great detail. “Allow me to digress,” says another character. He need not have asked permission: in this fictional world, digression is the norm. And yet none of these breaches of literary convention seem to matter much when set against the exuberance of Pamuk’s invention.
Pamuk has often written indirectly about Turkey’s nationalist revolution and got into trouble with the Turkish authorities for doing so. This book can be read as a playful variation on the theme. More obviously, it is a novel about a community devastated by an incurable disease. He speaks, in many different voices, about forced isolation and confinement. It traces the way an epidemic justifies authoritarian measures, providing another way for Pamuk to make a veiled commentary on Turkey’s current regime. Inevitably, it will look like his Covid novel, and yet for all its rows of corpses, it rarely strikes a tragic note. Rather it is a compendium of literary experiments, playful, daring, exasperating and entertaining.