arhan Pamuk loves to play new games. Each of his books is noticeably different from the others, yet each one has the potential to confuse the reader. This is long and intellectually expansive. It tackles big themes: 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 the weight of its subject matter, its tone is somewhat sarcastic, bow, even flimsy. It has many flaws. It is repetitive. Contains a lot of width. All the same – officially and in terms of content – it’s one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year.
In 1901, a man in a glowing pioneer uniform holding medals steps onto the balcony of a government building and waves a flag. Blood spurted from a bullet wound to his arm, but he cried unchecked to the crowd assembled beneath him: “From this moment on, our land is free. Long live the Mongari nation, long live freedom!”
Fifty-eight years later, a young girl repeats these words to her mother. In elementary school, the little girl learned about her mother’s birth. I have memorized poems about her. She’s seen the pictures – all, the narrator notes sarcastic, “She’s obviously moved Delacroix’s freedom leads the people“”. There are trinket shops full of souvenirs based on these pictures. She visited the museum dedicated to the heroic leader.
However, what young Mina learned is different from what readers know. You think there were thousands of people gathered under the balcony. We know there were quite a few – most of Pioneer’s target audience was deterred by the horror of contracting the bubonic plague. The child believes that the pioneer was carrying a national flag, which was sewn by the patriotic girls of the village. We know it was a banner initially designed to advertise a rose scented hand cream.
Mingria is a fictional island located somewhere between Crete and Cyprus and shares aspects of the history of both islands. It is part of the faltering Ottoman Empire. The population is divided roughly equally between Turkish Muslims and Greek Christians. The ruler is the comforting Sami Pasha, whose career as a colonial official has been a disappointment, and readers, despite his sometimes cruelty, will likely be somewhat smitten.
The first cases of the plague were concealed. The royal alchemist of the Sultan was sent from Istanbul to take charge. Shortly after his arrival, he was killed. To take his place, the arrival of the Sultan’s niece, Princess Bakis, and her husband, an epidemiologist, Dr. Nuri; Nouri is set to take charge of the quarantine, and Buckys writes long letters to her sister. You might assume that these messages will form the narration. But no, Pamuk is doing something more complicated. The novel we’re reading, so we’re informed in a preface, written by Mina in 2017, draws on Buckeyes letters and other contradictory sources.
There is no shortage of these. Mingria is full of informants and spies. The Chief Watcher is the most powerful officer of the government and when his files reach Pakize and Nuri, they make it clear how ubiquitous his agents are. Besides, many of the participants in the story wrote their memoirs. Mona’s fiction makes use of these fictional sources and her own imagination. The Nights of the Plague is a historical story, but no one in it claims to own the historical truth.
Pamuk hides behind two masks, two supposedly female voices. It is also an impressionist, experimenting with the characters of other authors suitable for the time period. There are overt allusions to Dumas and Tolstoy, echoes to Joseph Conrad, Gilbert and Sullivan and Edgar Allan Poe. Sherlock Holmes is often called out. The Sultan is a huge fan, and he urged Nuri to find out who killed the royal alchemist using the “Sherlock method” for logical deduction. (Sami Pasha finds that the usual torture of suspects is more effective.)
The novel’s chronology is far from as straightforward as its narrative strategy. The clock at the Central Post Office in Mingeria shows two different times simultaneously. time folds. People think about going back to their childhood. Mina looks to their future, and thinks about what historians will make of the events she describes. Phrases such as “to be revealed later” or “our readers will find out” are repeated. There are misgivings and spoilers. The plot threads are prepared as prostitutes, only in order to give the answer impromptu and too soon. The back stories of the characters are presented late, sometimes at a disproportionate length. The multi-layered narrators seem to forget what we already know, or don’t know at all. The Pilgrimage Rebellion was mentioned several times before we were told of it. Each work piece is subject to repetition from different points of view. It’s confusing, I think on purpose. This is a novel whose structure is not like scaffolding, but rather a very intricate piece of knitting.
Pamuk (and/or Meena) violates the normal rules of storytelling; The mantra “show, don’t tell” was completely ignored. When a newlywed couple is finally alone, he says to her, “First let me tell you about the country in which IQF finds itself,” and does so at length. Another character says, “Let me digress.” He didn’t need to ask permission – in this fantasy world, digression is the norm. However, none of these violations of literary conventions seem to be of much importance when faced with the exuberance of Pamuk’s invention.
Pamuk often wrote indirectly about the nationalist revolution in Turkey, and got into trouble with the Turkish authorities for doing so. This book can be read as a fun variation on the topic. It is clearly a novel about a society devastated by an incurable disease. He speaks – in many different voices – of forced isolation and closure. It traces the way the pandemic justifies authoritarian measures, providing another way for Pamuk to make a veiled comment on Turkey’s current system. It will inevitably be seen as his novel Covid, however, with all the rows of corpses, it rarely sounds a tragic tone. Rather, it is a compendium of literary experiments, absurd, daring, full of exasperation and amusing.