Book Review: “Nights of Plague, ” by Orhan Pamuk – The New York Times

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Set on an imaginary island at the twilight of the Ottoman Empire, “Nights of Plague, ” by the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, is a chronicle of an epidemic, a murder mystery and a winking literary game.

NIGHTS OF PLAGUE , by Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap.

Not that it matters, since we’re talking about a work of fiction, but Abdul Hamid II (1842-1918), sultan of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire, really did love Sherlock Holmes mysteries — and presented Holmes’s creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, with the empire’s Order of the Medjidie when Conan Doyle visited Istanbul in 1907. Both the real-life sultan and the imaginary Holmes are weird presences looming over Orhan Pamuk’s new novel, “Nights associated with Plague, ” although the sultan stays offstage after setting the story in motion, and characters simply — plus repeatedly — evoke Holmes as an exemplar of modern Western rationalism, rather than as a borderline-preposterous literary invention.

You could fritter away hours and hours of screen time disentangling what Pamuk has made up from what history has handed him — I speak from experience — but since it already takes hours and hours to read a nearly 700-page novel, what would be the point? As in any work of fiction, we take what’s on the page to be real, whether or not it’s factual. That includes the eastern Mediterranean island of Mingheria, an outpost of the Ottoman Empire that’s findable only on the novel’s own map, and the Google-proof Mina Mingher, the historian who’s writing the particular book we’re reading, and who claims acquaintance with “the novelist and history enthusiast Orhan Pamuk. ” “Nights of Plague” might pass for an old-fashioned, detail-rich Tolstoyan epic — Mingher calls it “both the historical novel and a history written in the form of a novel” — if not for all those writer-at-work signs. (“I will indulge in a quick digression now. …”) And if not for its immersiveness, the book might pass for an exercise in self-reflexive postmodernism.

The story begins in 1901, when a ship from Istanbul lands on Mingheria, where bubonic plague has broken out. The island has achieved a modus vivendi among its Christians and Muslims, the secularist Westernizers and its fundamentalist traditionalists; it’s a microcosm of the centrifugal, disintegrating empire, and the plague makes literal the then current metaphorical characterization of the sultan’s dwindling domain as “the sick man of Europe. ” The sultan has sent Bonkowski Pasha, a Christian who’s the empire’s chief inspector of public health and sanitation, to be followed by a Muslim epidemiologist, Prince Consort Doctor Nuri Bey, and the doctor’s wife, Princess Pakize, on whose letters Mingher tells us she’s largely based her novel. (The real-life Nuri Bey, 1834-1910, was a good Ottoman Turkish composer. Curious about Bonkowski and the princess? Knock yourself out. )

Someone murders the chief inspector, and it falls to the princess and prince consort to employ Holmes’s methods to nail the culprit, while Western medicine puts an end to the problem. But the islanders, bless their pre-modern hearts, resist quarantine measures and the infectious bodies keep piling up. At one point, searchers find a pair of decomposing corpses “welded” together — “It was hard to tell whether they had been the married couple or lovers or something else” — as well as the scent of Mingheria’s ubiquitous roses mingles with the stench of Lysol and rotting flesh. That too seems metaphorical: Pamuk’s delight in art plus artifice is inextricable from his realistic accounts of disease, poisonings and assassinations, political intrigue, cultural and religious enmity, gender inequity and medical futility. Is this the production of a writer who can’t decide what effect he wants? Take it up with the author of “Hamlet, ” a prematurely postmodern function that also leaves us with a glut of corpses, yet continually reminds all of us that we’re watching a play.

The very heft associated with “Nights of Plague” — as well as its thematic omnivorousness, its placement in world history, its epigraph through “War and Peace” and its author’s 2006 Nobel Prize — seems to declare it a contender for the heavyweight crown. But Pamuk’s too cagey to get into any ring with Tolstoy. Imposing as it seems, “Nights of Plague” falls short of “War plus Peace” by the length of the middling Victorian novel; this doesn’t even outstrip “The Count of Monte Cristo, ” another of the sultan’s favorite works of European literature. The book’s self-conscious bookishness, not its bulk, is what presumes to elevate it from a mere page-after-page-after-page-turner. Although Pamuk lays out a traditional feast of traditional plot, character and setting, we’re never allowed to forget that this novel, however convincing in its historical minutiae (feigned and otherwise), is a novel, based on that fictive trove of letters, which the fictive narrator intends to publish when she’s done writing the fictive “Nights of Plague. ” And the fictive ratiocination of Sherlock Holmes infects the particular characters’ sensibilities: “A proclivity for murder mysteries, ” Mina Mingher tells us, “may transform every page of this book … into an ocean of symbols. ”

So Holmesian is Mingher’s princess — and so readerly — that she investigates a poisoning by consulting Chapter 52 of “The Count of Monte Cristo, ” titled “Toxicology . Since her uncle, the sultan, is devoted to the particular book, she can make the logical deduction. (We can make a logical deduction too: Pamuk’s remembering “Hamlet” and its avuncular toxicologist. ) Not all great novels revel in the fictiveness of fiction — Tolstoy would have had no patience with such self-indulgent playfulness — but writers can’t help knowing that they’re making stuff up. And it’s not as if readers don’t know it too.

All that said, “Nights of Plague” is more fun to reflect upon than to wade through. Pamuk, that once wanted to be a painter , has admitted that he writes extravagant landscape descriptions “which I know some readers are skipping. … I know some bad readers may do that. ” A good reader, we infer, is one who’ll sit still for anything; a good editor might have pruned some of Mingheria’s oft-mentioned roses, as well as its lindens, pines, planes, palms, acacias, olives, peaches, lemons, oranges, figs, magnolias, cypresses, horse chestnuts and tamarinds — to mention only the trees. The characters deliver paragraphs-long expository speeches, and talk in Old Translationese — “Your trepidations are for naught” — spiced using the occasional anachronism (“Hang in there, Pasha! ”).

But you can’t blame Ekin Oklap, who’s translated two of Pamuk’s previous novels from his original European; these people should sound alien and antiquated. Their problems are familiar — political unrest, religious sectarianism, epidemic disease — but their world is remote, and Pamuk doesn’t traffic in “relatability. ” He has repeatedly alluded to Henry James’s reservation about historical fiction — how can we truly understand anyone who lived in the past? — and “Nights of Plague” appropriately refuses to stick a fez on a post-Freudian Westerner’s head and call it good. (On the other hand, Hamlet still seems to be our contemporary after 400-odd years, despite his doublet, hose plus inky cloak. ) The particular characters have some distinguishing quirks: The none-too-bright governor associated with Mingheria likes to wander around in disguise, and the none-too-bright leader of the island’s successful independence movement is mainly obsessed with getting his likeness around the new nation’s postage stamps. They just don’t have sufficient inner lives to give the illusion that they’re real, knowable people. If one of them were to come leaping off the page at us, it would be the breach of aesthetic decorum.

The most “real” character in “Nights of Plague” will be Mina Mingher herself, the particular fictive novelist who’s writing the fictive “Nights of Plague, ” arguing along with her fellow (fictive) historians while resolving “not to bring personal polemic into this book, ” hinting about the girl divorce and warning that will “many of the pages from the book you are holding now must have been read before you by the agents of the Mingherian Intelligence Agency. ” She’s verbose, opinionated, defensive and afflicted with a sense of loss plus longing; the few glimpses we get made me want more hours with her and fewer with the girl creations. But that was her choice: She wrote the novel. Didn’t she?

David Gates’s most recent book is usually “A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me. ”

NIGHTS OF PLAGUE | By Orhan Pamuk | Translated by Ekin Oklap | 681 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $34

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