One of the perks of being a Turkish speaker is – roughly every four years – a new Orhan Pamuk book is published and we get to read it immediately revelling in his unique style with a feeling of nostalgia.
After each book, the same articles are reprinted in Turkish media, discussing whether he’s an artist or an artisan, whether his translations flow better than his Turkish, and whether one can love art created by someone quirky, annoying, pedantic and for some (not me!) despicable. I’ll come back to despicable.
For what it’s worth, I enjoy his books because:
- Orhan Pamuk writes like an engineer: his prose is well thought out, analytical and has a solid structure
- An Orhan Pamuk novel feels not like fiction but reality in a parallel universe. Probably because every detail is meticulously researched
- I understand Turkey better as I read him. He’s not someone who is able to blend with his people1 but he’s an amateur historian and a sociologist who gets to the point and is usually quite right. I would like my sons to read his books to learn about their homeland
- Even when he’s writing about a subject that does not interest me (The New Life, Snow) , I end up mulling over Turkish politics, history, and culture
- I enjoy the luxury of being able to recommend and gift his books or essays to my non-Turkish speaking friends – in most cases saving time while arguing my case
- Once he’s published, he follows up with excellent marketing teaching others how it’s done. He was the first author to market his books like a “product”. His presence on the screen makes him appear charming somehow
So, when his new book (Nights of Plague) came out this spring, I asked a friend flying from Istanbul to pick up a copy for me at the airport. Meanwhile my brother mailed me one as a present – so I had two, and was able to gift one to another friend in the diaspora.
Nights of Plague takes place in the beginning of the 20th century during a plague epidemic in an imagined island (Minger) off the Southwestern coast of Turkey2. Similar to the city of Kars in his pre-Nobel book, Snow, the island gets isolated from the rest of the world. An infectious disease expert sent by the Sultan gets murdered, so the Sultan sends his niece and her husband (who happens to be a colleague of the murdered expert) to stop the plague and solve the mysterious murder.
Masochistically, I enjoyed reading about a pandemic during COVID-19. I had recently finished The Plague by Albert Camus (it was OK) but Nights of Plague was more to the point: the lockdowns, those who resist the lockdowns, politics and conspiracy theories behind every civil decision related to the lockdowns. Felt like home.
Pamuk has certain themes here, the most obvious being the plague. Other themes are mostly his typical subjects of nationalism, Turkey stuck between East and West, Turkish reforms (that never happen), and political Islam.
Pamuk knows well that his theme that will attract most ire from Turks is his treatise of nationalism.
One of the major characters in the book is Major Kamil. He has suspicious similarities to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (Kamil, Kemal?), therefore I was ROTFL when Orhan Pamuk and his publisher claimed there was nothing in the book that could be considered belittling of Atatürk – and that the character is a hero loved by his people.
The second part of the statement is true, but his caricature of a leader deified by his people is an obvious allegory. Perhaps a more plausible defense could be that Pamuk is not criticising Kamil, but is making fun of “Kamilists”.
I hate to give these examples, but after Kamil passes away, the Kamilsts use his image and his love of Mingerians to cement their ideal of a state:
- They record his final words and write them all over the island (on stamps, on walls, on calendars etc.). These words are used to teach children how to read/write
- They incarcerate anyone who makes fun of Kamil and his love for his wife Zeynep
- Officials make sure life is made difficult for those who name their kids any name that is not of Minger origin
- Both Greeks and educated Turks are jailed for “separatism” if they speak their minds
- Some sentences uttered by Kamil are memorised by children and recited in nationalist rallies and celebrations
- School inspectors expect students to remember the first words exchanged between Kamil and Zeynep when they meet
- The storyteller loses her passport and is stuck on the island after she criticises human rights violations (that pisses off Kamilists)
I agree that such politics (which is familiar) show lack of self respect and insecurity. But I cannot understand why Pamuk is unable to speak his mind given his prominent position as a literary behemoth and a respected intellectual (worldwide ex-Turkey). If Pamuk is unable to stand up for what he believes in how can others?
I think the reason behind his reticence is that he desperately wants to be loved. When it comes to standing up to his beliefs vs risking being called a traitor he decides to buckle under press statements written by lawyers.
Can Pamuk just accept the fact the he will never be loved by certain journalists and various parts of the political spectrum? Some people will always find him despicable, a fifth columnist, someone who traded his honour for a Nobel Prize and love from the liberal elites of the West(!).
As a loyal reader, I would love to see that he can stand up for what he believes in by getting rid of his haters.
First Reactions to the Plague
Orhan Pamuk’s Minger Island is equally divided between Turks and Greeks who represent other schisms as well: muslim vs orthodox christian, educated vs not, rich vs poor, upper vs working class, connected vs insular. As the disease spreads, Orhan Pamuk tells us how people react differently according to where they stand and how the state gets ham-fisted and destroys a delicate equilibrium.
The book begins with the first few deaths, and just like with COVID-19, the initial victims are ashamed to have been infected as if the plague is something that infects the weak, the careless, and the ignorant.
The politics too is fragile and I need to commend Pamuk here, he does a great job of explaining the difficulties politicians faced in the last days of the Ottoman Empire – the first days of the Republic of Turkey. The Greeks who have more money and influence support the violent Greek nationalist militia and the priests whilst the state turns a blind eye to atrocities committed by Turkish gangs and helps the sheiks who yield power on the Muslims. Such unequal treatment erodes the trust further.
I wondered as I read these, if we had avoided the terrible 1923 forced exchange of Turks and Greeks, would we have a Cyprus issue all over the country?
Corruption and Cognitive Biases
As the plague advances and life gets tougher for everyone, cognitive biases tend to get stronger. There’s no need of social media to tell the islanders what they want to believe is right – in a small island, gossip works just as well.
During the summer of 2021 as I was reading the book, there were wildfires all over Turkey, especially in the beautiful coastline which tends not to vote for the incumbent politicians. People in my “tribe” had multiple explanations for the fires, none of which was climate change. Depending on what they believed, people blamed the PKK, the firefighters who took orders from the state, the Russians who leased firefighting planes which were very similar to those rotting in Ankara, the vengeful politicians, the incompetent local authorities… Some of the allegations could have been true, but not to the point of ignoring climate change.
On Minger Island, Muslims believe the lockdowns are invented to ruin the Muslim businesses so that the Christians get richer. The fact the most of the doctors on the quarantine committee are Greeks does not help. To add insult to injury, the committee tends to stress some useless precautions (fumigation which is favoured by muslims) to push people in the right direction, to create a “burning platform” for change.
This reminded me of forcing people to wear masks outside during COVID-19; the experts know very well sick people infect others in poorly ventilated closed spaces but most countries still mandate outside mask wearing to keep people on their toes. Therefore people do not respect the scientists, doctors and most importantly the state, and they get used to disobeying quarantine rules.
So far I did not talk about the main characters in the book.
- The sultan (Abdülhamid II) is always in the background yet we do not see him
- The governor Sami Pasha is the sultan’s shadow on the island. He is a loveable version of the Sultan
- Major Kamil (I promoted him, his rank is between a Captain and a Major) is a rebel, a patriot/nationalist and a hero. He’s a lover and a fighter
- Sultan’s nephew Pakize and her husband Dr. Nuri are not from the island and are aloof during the lockdown though they stay on the island the whole time. They are the future of the Ottoman Empire that never happened
- Sheikh Hamdullah is a local religious leader who gets undue sympathy from the author
- Ramiz, Hamdullah’s brother, is another lover and a fighter but on the wrong side. Orhan Pamuk portrays him as the handsome anti-hero, just like Lacivert the islamist in Snow. Some say he’s modelled after Çerkez Ethem, I think he’s more of a Topal Osman
There’s a revolution that leads to independence, and what follows independence makes one think that Turks are cursed.
Even if Turkey was a small island with no complex problems, even if religion was less of a divisive issue and even if national unity was created over a common (forgotten) language, even if we had the islamists or a monarch as leaders – what we will end up with is oppressive nationalism ad nauseam mixed with petty corruption.
Orhan Pamuk is an excellent non-fiction writer. He does his homework, writes in a light hearted way, sprinkling his prose with fun gossip and pushes the buttons of the reader to get her agitated.
In Nights of Plague he discusses the last days of the empire with some focus on the events that made Sultan Abdulhamid the paranoid man he is, how the princes lived in the palace (in their golden cages), the last harem, stories of progressive princes and sultans that created the foundations of the secular republic, the story of the Dodecanese islands, and the exile of the house of Osman.
The first and the last 100 pages of the book teaches the non-Turkish reader Turkish history from 1890 to 1920. But I also think part of his audience is the Turkish reader who is a victim of the our ever evolving education system. As we say in Turkish, Pamuk loves to stick a pole into the revolving wheel.
We also get a good dose of Pamuk’s favourite issue of Ottoman reforms. The reforms are initiated with demands from the intelligentsia and are later supported by the Europeans mostly to protect and foster their trade interests or interests of those they thought they were protectors of. According to Pamuk, the Sultan saw that his reforms are helping the non-Muslim minorities and not the Turks. So as progress gets stifled and life gets tough, the minorities begin to emigrate to the West, which is a solution since governing them is pain with all the external pressure. It’s like the famous joke by Emrullah Efendi the minister of education of the time who said being the minister would’ve been so much easier if the schools did not exist.
The happiness over the emigration of the minorities in Minger Island reminds me of the current situation in Turkey. Since 2011, we are seeing the biggest exodus of the educated and liberal classes – because they can. The politicians do not seem to mind this wallet and brain drain. It makes governing the remainders so much easier.
Pamuk shows us how Sultan Abdulhamid II invents political islam as a reaction to nationalism of his mosaic of subjects: how he has no choice but to promote religion even though he still has his tipple of cognac every evening and how he has no other chance but to oppress his people to keep his country intact.
Similarly the Governor Sami Pasha of Minger Island thinks the islamists have a fear of God which makes them more honest, obedient and law abiding. Pamuk also shows the shockingly nice side of one of the sheiks on the island. Shiekh Hamdullah gets support from the Governor because his influence increases the percentage of Muslims on the island.
There is an excellent Tolstoyan chapter of a sermon given by the Shiekh after a Friday prayer. He’s supposed to persuade the Muslims that the lockdowns are necessary, but as he speaks, he changes his mind and ends up talking about the orientalist idea of submission to God and fate. But Pamuk is emollient, he claims these religious leaders constantly get into trouble with the authorities because they are proud and they want to appear strong, not because they are a nuisance. “They have no faults except their faith.”
Pamuk being Pamuk, he also has more worldly issues. He talks about lockdowns and how they make people feel guilty either way. One feels guilty to leave his friends and get out of the island, but one also feels guilty for staying put and being isolated from the rest of the world waiting for death hands tied.
In his interviews about his research he mentions Camus (The Plague), Daniel Defoe (Journal of the Plague Year) and Alessandro Manzoni (The Betrothed). He’s more interested in Dafoe and Manzoni because they write about the political implications of a plague, things like forced quarantines and the people making these decisions, Camus on the other hand cares about how the plague is an allegory to the Nazis.
In Nights of Plague, there are references to Hobbes’ Leviathan too, both on the front cover (the castle that looks like the one in the frontispiece of the 1651 print of Leviathan) and the jailed Greek nationalist journalist who reads it in the dungeon.
Perhaps Pamuk also read this article in the New Statesman which talks about Hobbes and how he is vindicated by some whenever there’s a crisis in the world. People need a strongman to tell them what to do – in order to avoid a civil war. But past experience has shown time and again that a totalitarian leader (or Facebook) cause polarisation and politics becomes destructive.
Pamuk’s little island uses nationalism to bring the people together, coercing those who refuse to believe the BS perpetuated by those in power and ends up being a jail – which is exactly what the inhabitants abhor during the nights of plague. After the Island gets over the plague and opens the borders, the islanders get perpetual isolation from the modern world, which again looks like an allegory to modern day Turkey.