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Wednesday, March 29, 2023



“Nights of Plague” may not be his finest work – it is overlong and often repetitive despite its readability – but it is a compelling one. (Review by Margaret von Klemperer)

Orhan Pamuk is not the first Nobel prizewinner to use an outbreak of bubonic plague as the backdrop for his fiction – Albert Camus did it first in the unforgettable La Peste in 1947, using the disease as a metaphor for the Nazi occupation of France.

Here Pamuk takes as his setting the fictional Mediterranean island of Mingheria in 1901, an outpost of the disintegrating Ottoman empire, the “sick man of Europe”. And he uses an outbreak of plague to explore sectarian divisions, nationhood and nationalism.

The novel opens with the arrival on the island of Princess Pakize, niece of the Sultan, along with her husband Nuri Bey, who is a doctor, and also the Royal Chemist, Bonkowski Pasha. The powers that be on Mingheria are keen to hide the epidemic, but as the numbers of deaths rise it becomes impossible. Not all the deaths are due to the plague – other killers stalk the island.

It is clear that the narrator, whose identity is unknown for the vast majority of this very long novel, is drawing on letters the Princess wrote to her sister back in Istanbul, and that the narrator’s perspective is from a time much closer to that of the reader than of the participants in the drama.

As the outbreak worsens, and measures prove ineffective at best and destructive at worst, the politics of the situation become more and more tense and divisive. But the narrator’s tone is often slightly derisive and ironic, and there are many moments of very dark humour.  The reader needs stamina to keep up with the huge cast of characters, and the discursive nature of the storytelling, but the picture of a society in disintegration is powerful and disturbing.

Readers in 2023 have lived through a pandemic themselves – maybe not quite as gruesome as the plague, but bad enough. And so the anger, the fatalism and the denial will all resonate. Many of the characters begin to demand our respect and, in some cases, affection. They include the elusive Princess, whose letters we never see but who is regularly quoted.

As the novel draws to a close, we will finally encounter her, once the identity of the narrator is revealed. Of course, once we know who it is, we may question their reliability, but that is Pamuk’s tease. Nights of Plague may not be his finest work – it is overlong and often repetitive despite its readability – but it is a compelling one. - Margaret von Klemperer

Orhan Pamuk (translated from Turkish by Ekin Oklap) is published by Faber & Faber: ISBN 978-0-571-35293-7