Orhan Pamuk’s new novel, Nights of Plague, is set mainly on Mingheria, a “fairy-tale,” “otherworldly,” and fictional Ottoman island—a “pearl of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea,” or so say the painters and tourists enchanted by its rugged mountains and its pink-stone capital, which glows when seen from afar. But behind the Orientalist fantasia lies a microcosm of empire at the point of collapse. In 1901, a bubonic plague breaks out. Pamuk will use it to expose the infirmities of this body politic.
Back in Istanbul, the sultan dispatches his top public-health official, the Royal Chemist, who happens to be a quarantine expert. The Royal Chemist is promptly murdered. The sultan sends out a second doctor, Nuri Bey, to solve the crime and try again to contain the plague. But all sanitary measures must go through Mingheria’s Ottoman governor, Sami Pasha, a genial host and an irrepressible stonewaller, political to his core. Nuri Bey has recently married the sultan’s niece Princess Pakize, so when the royal couple arrive, Governor Sami Pasha gathers a crowd for a suitable welcome ceremony, contagion be damned.
The plague doesn’t worry Sami Pasha; he considers the rumors a scheme to heighten tensions between the island’s rival groups, the Greeks and the Turks. He’s not interested in a scientific approach to the murder, either; he will just drum up 20 murder suspects to throw into jail. As he tells Nuri Bey, “Even that which may appear at first to have nothing at all to do with politics may reveal beneath the surface all manner of plots and nefarious intentions.”
Pamuk has said that he began thinking about a plague novel decades ago, started work on this one in 2016, and had partly completed Nights of Plague when COVID‑19 erupted. “I learned a lot about human stupidity in the pandemic,” he told a journalist earlier this year. But he wasn’t using the plague to talk about stupidity. What interested him was quarantine, he explained in 2020, with its potential to blow up existing institutional arrangements.
Lockdowns and other wildly unpopular injunctions—all of which happen in Nights of Plague—stir up unrest and may lead to revolution or a coup, even a succession of coups. By setting the novel at a time when quarantine could mean closing food markets, burning down neighborhoods, and herding exposed people into overcrowded areas almost certain to kill them, Pamuk is able to pose timely questions about the nature of the state: When is it helping people despite themselves, and when is it a dictatorship? And how are citizens to know the difference?
Nights of Plague is a novel in three parts. Each depicts a stage in the evolution of Mingheria from colonial possession to independent nation, with the epidemic acting as a catalyst for change. Sami Pasha represents the Ottoman imperial bureaucracy, literally—that’s his job—and figuratively. He’s cavalier with the truth and nonchalant about justice, but Pamuk specializes in protean characters and dizzying shifts in perspective, and he is not about to make moral judgment easy. The governor smiles ingratiatingly as he tries to placate first one, then another, of the island’s factions—Greek and Turkish nationalists; religious rebels; sheikhs who tell their followers to use prayer sheets and amulets to ward off the plague, and to keep washing their dead; foreign consuls eager to make trouble for the Ottomans; shipping companies that lobby against quarantine while eking out profit from panic. He is particularly desperate to please his boss, the sultan, who cares less about the health of Mingherians than about appeasing the European powers that have mounted a naval blockade of the infected island. Dithering and backtracking, the governor sows confusion and paralysis. But he does readers the favor of taking them inside every nook of the island as he spins out possible conspiracies in his head.
As it turns out, actual conspiracies abound. At a swearing-in ceremony for recruits to the new Quarantine Regiment, the governor and his entourage are served poisoned biscuits. Anyone who maligns the sultan is immediately thought to be an agent provocateur working for the sultan, and probably is. The sultan’s suspicions make him dangerous, though they’re not unreasonable; he has spent his life trying to forestall assassination attempts. Princess Pakize knows firsthand how deadly sultanic mistrust can be. Until her marriage, she was his prisoner, locked in a castle with her family after the previous sultan, her father, was deposed. She thinks that her uncle is behind the murder of the Royal Chemist, and that she and her husband will probably come to some as yet undetermined harm. “You must not be so quick to come to conclusions!” Nuri Bey says. He is among the few who believe in the inductive method—just like Sherlock Holmes, he likes to say.
Paranoia is Pamuk’s great subject and the engine of his style. He forces you to read through scrims of suspicion and doubt. No fact, no backstory, is ever what it seems. “There is a literature of paranoia,” Pamuk has written, adding that it’s what he writes. If his novels have the postmodern quality of resisting closure, if they frustrate what Roland Barthes called “the passion for meaning,” that’s because there are plots and counterplots all the way down. He’s truly a novelist for the post-truth age.
When Pamuk called himself a paranoid writer, he named other masters of the genre—Dostoyevsky, Borges, Eco, Pynchon—and then said he had a certain edge over them, having grown up in a country that “has appropriated paranoia as a form of existence.” He was referring to Turkey, of course, a nation of political chaos, military coups (four since Pamuk was born, in 1952), and frequent furor over anti-government plots. These have typically featured shadowy networks, many composed of high-ranking officials in the state security apparatus who are fanatically loyal to Turkey’s modernizing first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. It’s no accident that the term deep state originated in Turkey.
Pamuk has more reason for paranoia than most Turkish citizens. In 2005—one year before he won the Nobel Prize—he was tried for “denigrating Turkishness,” which is a crime, by alluding to the Armenian genocide in an interview with a Swiss magazine. He endured a show trial during which screaming mobs roamed the courthouse and attacked his car. (The case was ultimately dropped.) As of this writing, he’s under investigation for another criminal act of denigration: insulting Atatürk in Nights of Plague, published in Turkey in 2021.
Trying to identify the forces behind Pamuk’s continued harassment is like trying to map the infinite regressions in his novels, only harder. For example (bear with me): In 2021, Tarcan Ülük, an ultraconservative lawyer, filed the complaint against Pamuk that launched the latest inquiry. Back in 2010, Ülük had established a political party called Ergenekon. Two years before that, the Islamist government of then–Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had exposed a purported clandestine terrorist organization that was said to be plotting a coup. That group was also known as Ergenekon, and it appeared to have targeted Pamuk for assassination. (Ergenekon is a name from Turkish myth popular among nationalists; it refers to a magical place deep in the Altai Mountains.)
Did Pamuk have enemies with murderous intentions? He thought so, and acquired bodyguards. Were the enemies part of a secret entity called Ergenekon? As the circle of so-called plotters widened and accounts of rights violations piled up, critics of the Erdoğan administration began to call the “Ergenekon conspiracy” a pretext for rounding up his opponents. Maybe it was even a fabrication, though no one doubts that violent, covert, ultranationalist groups exist in Turkey. Conspiracy? Counterconspiracy? Both? It is impossible to say.
Once you’ve heard the charge against Nights of Plague, it’s hard to resist the urge to adjudicate the case, even if that lends legitimacy to a law that props up a dictatorship. The facsimile of literary argument in the complaint, however grotesque, has its uses. It gives us a taste of the atmosphere of menace that surely closes in on Pamuk as he sits down to work. And understanding the political and legal constraints he has to write around helps explain the feints and complications that make his fiction unsettling and often funny, but also hard to get through.
So here goes: It’s the hero of the second part of Nights of Plague, Major Kâmil, whom Ülük objects to, saying he “mocks the figure of Atatürk.” And this chunk of the novel is cartoonish. The Major, an expatriate, returns to Mingheria as the Princess’s bodyguard. Plague has emptied the streets of everything but bodies. The sultan deluges Sami Pasha with telegrams that contravene his efforts at quarantine enforcement. So the Major takes it upon himself to shoot up the post office to stop all telegram traffic. After that, he accidentally starts a remarkably brief war of independence: a single spaghetti-Western-style scene during a meeting in Mingheria’s fancy new State Hall. An important sheikh at the gathering misses the whole coup because he’s in the bathroom inspecting its famous “quintessentially European” toilet bowls.
We now move from farce to mock epic. The Major (“a man whose actions would soon alter the destiny of the whole island”) emerges as the first president of the sovereign nation of Mingheria. He strides to a balcony and waves a flag (actually a banner advertising personal-care products) before spellbound onlookers. The Major’s walk to the balcony is swiftly turned into an oil painting modeled on Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, which is then rendered onto tchotchkes “sold in the island’s shops all the way through to the late 1930s.” The Major makes a speech two days later, declaring, “I am a Mingherian!” It will be “fondly remembered—and tearfully recited—by every Mingherian citizen and anyone who has gone to school on the island.”
Does Major Kâmil make a mockery of Atatürk? Knowing that Pamuk has had to anticipate this question gives the portentous tone of these chapters a different resonance. It is true that the Major resembles the late president in some particulars. Atatürk led a war of independence and gave a famous speech memorized by schoolchildren. His cult yielded mountains of kitsch—Atatürk buttons, watches, bumper stickers, T-shirts, shoes. Even 84 years after his death, his photograph appears in storefronts, restaurants, and private homes. Atatürk also led one of the most radical cultural revolutions in history, known as Kemalism. He resurrected myths from Turkey’s pre-Islamic age, switched the Turkish alphabet from Islamic script to Latin letters, and outlawed the fez and turban in favor of Western hats, as well as ties and suits.
The Major does something similar: He resuscitates the Mingherian language, revives Mingherian myths, renames streets. But there the likeness ends. In temperament and character, the fictional founder of modern Mingheria and the “Father Turk” (the literal translation of Atatürk) occupy different moral universes. Major Kâmil is an amateur—sweet, idealistic, and indifferent to his presidential duties. While members of his administration oversee a raid on a Muslim sect that resists quarantine, the Major lingers in his palace to research Mingherian names for the child his wife is about to bear. She contracts the plague instead, and the Major holds her in his arms until she dies, then dies himself. Atatürk, by contrast, was a professional from the get-go, a brilliant politician and ultimately a ruthless despot. He would not have martyred himself for love.
Pamuk has given the Major plausible deniability. But Nights of Plague is unmistakably satire and allegory. Its mordant riffs on Ottoman, revolutionary, and nationalist styles of leadership do amount to a critique of Atatürk, Kemalism, and even President Erdoğan’s government—just not in a single character.
To parse a Pamuk novel, you can’t focus exclusively on plot. You have to pay close attention to how the story is told. Pamuk sets fictions inside metafictions: His narrators explain how they found the letters or manuscript on which they will base their tale, only to undermine that claim with offhand revelations and jarring changes of tone. By the end of a Pamuk novel, the scaffolding established at the beginning has usually collapsed, leaving readers dangling in midair.
So we should not be surprised to find that the narrator of Nights of Plague, a contemporary historian of Mingheria with the Dickensian name of Mîna Mingher who comes off as relatively normal at first, grows ever loopier. She says she is writing a historical novel, but intermittently forgets that she’s making things up and pedantically cites sources. She drapes all things Mingherian in a cloak of radiance, especially the Major—except when she lets it fall away. She writes that he was loved like a father even before the uprising: “People looking out at the street from their windows were often impressed by the sight of the Major walking past in his uniform, and felt that they could trust him.” But a few pages later, they “taunt him, or tease him, or pretend to be respectful only to sneer at him the next moment.”
The final third of the novel explores strongman rule in Mingheria, and brings the pressures contorting the narrative into focus. After the Major’s death and the two short-lived administrations that follow, the island comes under the sway of one leader for 31 years. He is Mazhar Effendi, who served as “Chief Scrutineer”—chief spy—in the time of Sami Pasha. He ascends to the presidency in a coup so subtle, it goes all but unnoticed.
President Mazhar cements power by turning the tale of Major Kâmil into both an origin myth and a sophisticated nationalist ideology. At President Mazhar’s inauguration, “the most meticulously organized political pageant … in the island’s history,” students wave Mingherian flags and village girls perform Mingherian folk dances in Mingherian costumes. Later, he has thousands of photographs of the Major and his wife distributed. A much-embroidered-upon account of their romance and marriage goes into children’s books and textbooks: If President Mazhar can present himself as the guardian of the Major’s legacy, he can get away with whatever he wants.
What he wants is to consolidate power, and on that subject, Mîna Mingher is openly bitter. “Those who have expressed reservations about these myths, suggested they might be contrived, or even simply joked about their exaggerations, have often ended up in prison,” she observes. Indeed, President Mazhar “would use prisons, labor camps, and other similar methods to subjugate the island’s liberals, its pro-Turkish and pro-Greek factions … and he would also put together a powerful army.” Eight decades later, his successors kick Mingher off the island for 21 years. Perhaps she had been too blunt in her protests against the regime; perhaps she had committed other offenses. In any case, she returns, and in the book that she finishes in 2017, she is careful to pay homage to the cult of the Major and the glorious state of Mingheria.
In short, section three reframes section two. In retrospect, Mingher’s shambolic prose looks like preemptive self-defense. The same can be said of Pamuk’s cagey style. In a press release put out by his Turkish publisher after Nights of Plague came under attack, Pamuk says that the Major “is a hero of many virtues who is loved by the public,” and therefore not meant to lampoon the late Turkish president. Maybe. Or maybe Pamuk tricked his tormentors into fingering the wrong guy. Do they grasp that the authoritarian President Mazhar is the leader who comes closest to insulting Atatürk? After all, they like Atatürkian autocrats. We can be sure that they lack the finesse to grasp that novels tell their stories slant. How do we know a legitimate government from a dictatorship? Pamuk has built a maze around the answer, and that’s an answer in itself.
This article appears in the November 2022 print edition with the headline “The Literature of Paranoia.”