It feels a long way from the labyrinthine hubbub of Istanbul to the neat limestone geometry of Georgian Bath, where I talk to Orhan Pamuk.

Both cities, however, swarm with literary ghosts: we meet in a hotel near a museum-mansion that offers Jane Austen-themed tours. Turkey’s Nobel laureate (he won the award in 2006) has enriched the landscape of his birthplace with a sequence of novels that stamp its streets, quays, alleys, cafés and mosques with a creative personality as strong as those that fashioned Dickens’s London, or Joyce’s Dublin.

Pamuk’s Istanbul, however, no longer exists simply on the printed page. A decade ago, with funds from his global royalties, he opened his very own ‘Museum of Innocence’ in an 1890s house on a side street in the Çukurcuma district. Its cabinets, crammed with ephemera, keepsakes and curiosities from everyday Turkish life, commemorate the star-crossed love story recounted in his 2008 novel of that name. Since it opened, 290,000 visitors have come to see this bricks-and-mortar monument to wholly fictitious people and events. During the Covid lockdowns, it received government grants. His brainchild has become part of the physical fabric of the city: ‘There are even regular traffic signs saying “Museum of Innocence”,’ he tells me. ‘I never thought that traffic signs would be an advertisement for my novel!’

Orhan Pamuk in The Museum of Innocence

Reality and Imagination

Pamuk’s prose has an uncanny ability to open up routes between reality and imagination, documentary facts and visionary ideas. From The Black Book and My Name is Red to A Strangeness in my Mind and The Museum of Innocence itself, his intricate, immersive recreations of Istanbul, past or present, have hosted a theatre of memory, desire and dream. Few writers have paid such gorgeously eloquent homage to a beloved home as Pamuk did in his illustrated memoir Istanbul: Memories and the City. Now seventy, he still lives there; still writes in an apartment with a stupendous panoramic view across the Bosphorus and its criss-crossing ferries to the Asian shore opposite; still spends his summers on the picturesque Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara.

Yet his latest novel, Nights of Plague, does the unthinkable. It leaves Istanbul. Indeed, it forsakes actual locations entirely for a setting in 1901 on the imaginary, pestilence-stricken Ottoman island of ‘Mingheria’, somewhere in the Aegean between Crete and Cyprus. Global media have seized on Nights of Plague as Pamuk’s ‘pandemic novel’, even though he began writing it three years before coronavirus shook the world. Just as remarkable as his eerie foresight is his ability to endow this island of the mind with the same hallucinatory presence as his real city. For all the perils that scourge Mingheria, Pamuk’s descriptive flair, sensory delight and exuberant world-building is utterly infectious. Reading Ekin Oklap’s flavourful and deftly-voiced translation, you almost want to book a holiday to this illusory corner of the Sultan’s domains.

‘Mingheria becomes the laboratory or microcosm in which Pamuk can investigate his key question: “How does a new nation unfold from the ashes of an empire?”’

A Crystallised Version

Nights of Plague dramatises not just an epidemic and its shattering impact but the end of an empire, the rise of ‘romantic nationalism’, and the lures and traps of identity-based politics. But why invent a fictitious backdrop? Pamuk cites his 2002 novel Snow, set in the north-eastern Turkish city of Kars. Although ‘international readers read Snow as an allegory of the political situation,’ some actual citizens of Kars protested, especially about the role played by religious fundamentalists in his plot. He traduced their home, they complained: ‘Why did you make it Islamist?’

The lesson? Don’t plant your parable on anybody’s actual map. Mingheria’s closest geographical parallel, Pamuk explains, was Crete: still under Ottoman control as the twentieth century dawned, although not evenly divided (as his island is) between Christian and Muslim communities. But Pamuk sought ‘a crystallised version’ of the imperial sunset, rather than a lightly-disguised version of one location. ‘I needed this kind of idealised island so that I could show the general fresco of the Ottoman empire.’ Mingheria becomes the laboratory or microcosm in which Pamuk can investigate his key question: ‘How does a new nation unfold from the ashes of an empire?’

Though his island may be fictitious, Pamuk packs it with teeming, vivid late-Ottoman actuality as the local  government – which answers to Sultan Abdul Hamid II in distant Istanbul – loses its grip while crises mount. ‘The past I returned to was not invented,’ he insists: ‘I meticulously researched Abdul Hamid’s period.’ From public-health policies and quarantine measures to the stock of a Greek-run pharmacy, the regime of a dank fortress prison, or the daily routine of the telegraph office, ‘All the historical details are accurate.’

Orhan Pamuk in The Museum of Innocence
The Museum of Innocence
The Museum of Innocence

Pamuk practises total immersion in his sources. He loves to spend time (say) with the memoirs of some long-forgotten Ottoman governor, and treats the dusty past with ‘melancholy and loving attention’. After all, he inherits it. He recalls childhood visits to his grandmother’s house, a shrine to family memory filled with fading photos of the sort of ‘fez-wearing people’ we meet on Mingheria. ‘Yes, this is definitely a historical novel but the atmosphere, the climate, the people, are not too far away from me.’

Pamuk, however, deplores the ‘cheap Ottomanism’ that currently warps historical memory in Turkey. He denies that his scrutiny of the imperial past amounts to ‘nostalgia’. ‘I love getting some of the details and putting them in my language, into my books,’ he says. ‘And I hope the reader enjoys them and gets obsessed with them as much as I do. But loving all these details does not mean I am nostalgic about that period. Looking at a landscape is one thing. Wanting to live in that landscape is entirely different.’

The 1590s court of Murad III depicted in My Name is Red is secretive, sinister and brutal, though it nurtures great art. Likewise, in Nights of Plague, the governor Sami Pasha may be a genial moderate, but his Mingheria – with its rose gardens and turquoise bays – remains a place of squalid dungeons, police torturers, merchant cronyism, and superstitious sects. Into this flawed idyll bursts bubonic plague. Pamuk sets the stage for a confrontation between science and tradition. It will demolish the old regime and usher in the kind of ‘nationalist fervour’ that ‘blurs the lines between history and literature, myth and reality’.

‘Suddenly, newspapers gave me a sense that the sickness spread from my manuscript to the whole world.’

Writing a ‘Plague Novel’

Pamuk had pondered a ‘plague novel’ for years. He embarked on it in 2016. Though friends asked why he bothered with such an ‘esoteric subject’, he had grasped that disease, and state responses to it, could act as an accelerating vector of social change. He learned storytelling strategies from (to his mind) the three classic epidemic narratives: Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed, and Albert Camus’s The Plague. Then, in early 2020, COVID-19 hit. Pamuk had foreseen that he would explain his new story by saying that: ‘The best three books about plague are written by authors who never experienced it – and the fourth one, I was planning to say modestly, inserting my name among them. But unfortunately this didn’t work out!’

Reality eclipsed fiction. Pamuk’s ninety-four-year-old aunt, who lived two blocks away, was among the first fatalities in Istanbul. What he had not imagined was the sheer terror that gripped people as the virus spread. So ‘I injected my fear into my characters.’ Spookily, for a writer with such a gift for making inner and outer realities converge, his fictional atmosphere filled the air that everybody breathed. ‘Suddenly, newspapers gave me a sense that the sickness spread from my manuscript to the whole world.’

The friends who had smiled over his ‘medieval’ fixations now said: ‘Oh, you’re so lucky!’ His fantasies seemed to be writing daily headlines. ‘A lot of my editors began emailing me: “Orhan, Orhan, finish your novel!”’ He did – but not by copying the progress of the pandemic outside his front door. Nights of Plague became, if anything, more rooted in the alien customs and assumptions of 1901, less a mirror for today: ‘“Oh look! They did the same thing 120 years ago”: I wanted to avoid this. I did not want to give my readers the impression that I’m actually writing about the present.’

‘“The human heart is the same all the time, although the problems may be so different.” For Pamuk, “that’s the joy of creating the historical novel.”’

In Snow, he had deleted references to Osama bin Laden after 9/11 ‘because I didn’t want people to think I had just cooked up the book in five minutes’. Now he jettisoned historical details that would feel over-familiar – such as the quarantine regulations. In Nights of Plague, knowing topicality yields to a quest for the common patterns that emerge when disaster strikes: ‘The human heart is the same all the time, although the problems may be so different.’ For Pamuk, ‘that’s the joy of creating the historical novel.’ This one sympathetically evokes both the scientific reason of epidemiology – ‘Sherlock Holmes methods’ – and the deep-rooted faith and lore that supports the island’s Muslim communities in times of trouble.

It shows, too, how a crisis can drive a wedge between peoples who have long co-existed in relative peace. Pamuk makes clear that, in the Ottoman lands, mutual tolerance did not always imply mutual understanding: ‘In fact, what is interesting about Muslims and Greeks living together for centuries is that they don’t know each other.’ Neighbours might still be strangers.

Photo of Istanbul by Ibrahim Uzun on Unsplash

About Abdul Hamid’s vast realms, Pamuk says that ‘This is an empire but it’s not a nation. Their culture is not unified. They are ready to explode.’ In miniature, on Mingheria, we witness that explosion as Major Kamîl leads a popular uprising. It lurches towards lasting independence through coup, counter-coup and factional wars among religious and secular rebels.

Any newborn nation craves foundational stories. Pamuk shows how nationalist ideology – like some sort of collective novelist – builds up anecdotes into a unifying master-narrative. It glorifies the past, justifies the present, and blesses the future. ‘People homogenise the nation to lessen the possibility of future conflicts,’ he explains. When emperors and caliphs fall, ‘there is no one to die for’. So ‘now, in order to motivate people, you have to invent secular myths.’ From heroic last-ditch battles and sacrificial love-stories to tattered, defiant flags, Nights of Plague shrewdly and wittily shows how ‘imagined communities’ are spun into being by stories. On liberated Mingheria itself, the affirmation of national identity becomes ‘as sacred as an act of prayer’.

History and Nationalism

Not for the first time, Pamuk’s insight and mischief landed him in trouble. Although his novel stitches an allegory of nation-building in general rather than the birth of the Turkish republic alone, his nationalist enemies read it (or pretended to) as a veiled mockery of the state’s founder, Kemal Atatürk. In 2021, shortly after the book’s Turkish publication, a lawyer brought a case against Pamuk for inciting ‘hatred’ against Atatürk and the Turkish flag. ‘On what page?’ the author asked the public prosecutor during an initial investigation. Answer came there none. However, after an early rebuff, the plaintiff took the dossier to a higher court.

This is the first time that Pamuk’s fiction itself has led to legal harassment. When he was charged with ‘insulting Turkish identity’ in 2005, the case related to interview remarks about the Armenian genocide of the First World War. Now, he feels sanguine and stoical. His own counsel, a veteran defender of dissidents, reassured him: ‘Mr Pamuk, don’t worry. It will be lost in the labyrinths of Ankara. That’s what’s happening . . . There’s no case, and I’m not really worried.’

The national past – in Turkey, Britain, or anywhere with a long history – remains a tricky, touchy theme. Along with its timely tales of pandemic psychology, Nights of Plague invites us to ask how fiction-writers, historians and politicians may narrate a country into existence – and then alter its story’s course. ‘The rise of the novel, the rise of the bourgeoisie, the rise of the nation – they’re all intertwined,’ Pamuk muses.

But can writers still draw maps of a country with the power that Tolstoy – Pamuk’s touchstone and model – commanded in War and Peace? ‘Fiction is aspiring to adapt to a new role because the definition of the nation is also changing,’ he says. He argues that ‘In the future successful nations, like successful novels, will be those where the immigrant, the newcomer, the other, is made part of the major narrative.’ In Istanbul, or in Bath, that story still waits to be fully told.

Orhan Pamuk‘s Nights of Plague is out now in hardback. See below for a list of Orhan Pamuk books.
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Orhan Pamuk

Plague is not the only killer— an historical epic of murder and mystery, myth-making and nation-building, from the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

About the Author

Orhan Pamuk is the author of many celebrated books, including The White Castle, Istanbul and Snow. In 2003 he won the International IMPAC Award for My Name is Red, and in 2006 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Museum of Innocence was an international bestseller, praised in the Guardian as ‘an enthralling, immensely enjoyable piece of storytelling’. Orhan Pamuk lives in Istanbul.

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