Book review: Nights of Plague

Nights of Plague

Orhan Pamuk


Review: Karen Watkins

This bold, brilliant novel takes place in 1901 and yet it resonates with the worlds’ recent pandemic.

The story mostly takes place on the fictional island of Mingheria lying between Crete and Cyprus that is part of the ailing Ottoman Empire.

There are rumours of plague. Sultan Abdul Hamid II dispatches a spy ship from Istanbul to the island.

On board are his niece Princess Pakize, who will write letters to her sister in Istanbul; her epidemiologist husband, Dr Nuri Bey, who will manage the quarantine; and royal chemist Bonkowski Pasha, who has to take charge of the island. Soon after arrival, Pasha is murdered under mysterious circumstances.

Pamuk’s genius is in the creation of the atmospheric island, so much so that it will have readers googling whether it in fact exists.

It’s obvious that Pamuk had fun creating the island. He gives in-depth detail of the streets, shops and islanders – an equal mix of Turkish Muslims and Greek Christians. He also details the year-long plague from the daily collection of corpses to the hostile resistance to quarantine.

Nights of Plague is Pamuk’s 11th novel and the longest. Possibly because he ignores the rules of storytelling – show, don’t tell. The logical route would have been to use the letters to create the story but not Pamuk; he does something far more complicated.

The book has been written in the form of a novel by historian Mîna Mingher, a descendant of Princess Pakize, based on the letters and other sources.

For me there was a serious problem with the tempo. The story starts well. It seriously drops in the middle and rises again at the end. And yet its tone is light, ironic and even flippant. The plot and characters are memorable and well-rounded. It’s also a story of how a proud island nation achieved its sovereignty.

It’s one of the most interesting books I read last year.