Nights of Plague is the latest book by the Turkish Nobel Prize winner, a fictional rendering based on historical reality that draws parallels (political and health-wise) between the past and the present.
MADRID — Orhan Pamuk is a kind of Bosphorus Bridge of literature: He unites two continents, two cultures, two philosophical and religious visions that have, over the centuries, tenaciously turned their backs on each other.
In his country, as the authoritarian drift of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has deepened, the author and public intellectual has progressively become a thorn in the side of the government. However, his run-ins with the Islamo-nationalist regime have not made a dent in his cheerful and optimistic personality.
Pamuk does well to hide his Hüzün, that particularly Turkish feeling of melancholy that infuses his autobiographical book "Istanbul," which is a version of the Portuguese Saudade, mixing local doses of fatalism and dark humor.
Fiction meets reality
Translated into more than 80 languages and deeply in love with the craft of writing, Pamuk does not hesitate to describe himself as "a lucky man" and offers glimpses at what no one else in our world marked by war, pandemic and the rise of the extreme right might be able to see: a better future.
In his latest novel, Nights of Plague, he mixes real and fictional characters to tell a story of politics, crime-solving, and healthcare crises. The action takes place in 1901, in Minguer, an imaginary island in the Mediterranean — "inspired by Crete", he reveals — in which the bubonic plague breaks out. The Ottoman Empire tries to contain the disease so that it does not spread across the continent, and is forced to impose strict sanitary measures that upset part of the population and provoke a government crisis.
I was a little jealous of reality.
Sounds familiar? Pamuk began writing it in 2016 and, when the coronavirus pandemic broke out, he was forced to change some passages so as not to appear opportunistic, he explained during a recent press conference with journalists from Spain and Latin America.
“The same thing happened to me when I was finishing writing Snow: A few months before its publication, the attack on the Twin Towers took place. In the novel, there were two mentions of Osama bin Laden and I deleted them," he recalled. "In this novel, I have had to shorten the passages in which I describe the quarantine because everyone already knows the details. I have to admit I was a little jealous of reality. All my investigative work fell apart.”
Vaccinated five times
In Snow, Pamuk was trying to get inside the head of a terrorist to see his motivations. That he believes is the main mission of literature, to put himself in the shoes of others to understand:
"Obviously, I do not understand a fundamentalist murderer, but I give it a try. That is a paradox inherent in the novelist's craft. For example, I would love to be able to write a really insightful novel about people who are not stupid and who, despite all the information they have, refuse to get vaccinated. In the United States I have met people like that. Respected, intelligent, cultured doctors, who understand the importance of confinement and vaccination, but who voted for Donald Trump and who, as they consider themselves defenders of freedom, were against health measures."
Those contradictions are a fascinating mystery for Pamuk, who anticipates what would be said of him if he were to faithfully recreate such a character: “Well, business as usual. They'd say I'm defending him! That I am one of them!”, he exclaims between laughs. “I would have to promote the book by showing my vaccination certificates. And I have five! Because in Turkey they gave us Sinovac, the Chinese vaccine, but it was not valid to travel to the United States and they gave me three others from BioNTech. And I am very happy with them!”
Orhan Pamuk's books have been translated into more than 60 languages, making him one of the most famous Turkish writers in the world.
In his eagerness to set himself literary challenges, Pamuk confesses that he wants to capture the female perspective, "I would like to write a 600-page novel narrated in a first-person feminine voice and that nobody would realize that I, a man, have written it." And why? “Well, it is an ethical decision that I impose on myself. I'm getting older and I increasingly want to see the world through the eyes of women. I am a man from the East and I know all the stupidity of this world. I've had enough. I want to hear that female voice in my novels. And this goes beyond political correctness, which, on the other hand, I completely agree with."
In fact, that pretension has already been exercised in novels such as My Name is Red or this latest work, Nights of Plague, which is told from the point of view of Princess Pakize Sultan, the wife of the doctor who tries to control the plague in Minguer Island.
Still, Pamuk says he has not yet reached that level of perfect transmutation to which he aspires. "I am a great admirer of Rousseau and he said one thing with which I have always agreed: Any grown man who fights with his mother is wrong. [Laughs] And I would add: Any Middle Eastern writer who picks a fight with his female critics is wrong."
Enemy of the motherland
Pamuk was always a great supporter of Turkey's entry into the European Union. That cosmopolitan and secular dream, which was close to materializing in the first decade of the 21st century, is today a chimera.
He was not going to have an easy time in Erdogan's Turkey.
In the intervening years, the Erdogan government has closed itself more and more vigorously around a nostalgia for the greatness of the Ottoman Empire. This retrograde vision has been ratified and consolidated in different elections thanks to the support of the Islamists. A writer like Pamuk, who has come to speak publicly about the Armenian genocide, the great taboo, was not going to have an easy time in Erdogan's Turkey. Somehow, his international prestige protects him, but he receives continuous threats, both physical — "I have to move with protection on the street" — and procedural.
The last of them attributed to him insults to the flag and to the father of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, from Nights of Plague. "And it wasn't true," he explains.
“The only certain thing is that this novel is a kind of allegory of the rise of nations after the disintegration of great empires. I talk about Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Egypt or Turkey, of all those countries that were born after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, but without any connection with Kemal Atatürk. I went to the prosecutor's office with the book under my arm and asked him to point me to the exact page where those alleged insults were found. Of course, he couldn't. My knowledge of the law prevented this case from dragging on in the bureaucratic labyrinths of Ankara and turning into a kind of Kafkaesque trial. Let us not forget that this judicial drift is an important part of the political struggle in Turkey. I was lucky and I don't want to present myself as a victim either." Others are actually worse off.
"People who have problems are not fiction writers like me," adds Pamuk. They are brave journalists, many of them friends of mine, who write, spend two years in jail, come out, write something brave again, and go back to jail."
To illustrate the political situation in his country, the writer turns to a member of Erdogan's government cabinet: “We have a Minister of Justice [Bekir Bozdag] who proudly announces that they are building new prisons. With pride! As if they were hospitals!"
Pamuk laments the Erdogan government's attacks on freedom of expression. "Without freedom of expression, there is no democracy. This has happened in the last six or seven years, before the eyes of all humanity," he says.
But true to his unwavering optimism, he sees a light at the end of the tunnel: “The latest polls are showing a clear decline in Erdogan's popularity. The economy has plummeted and people may not care too much that there are journalists in jail, but they do care about eating. And that's what we're talking about now, poverty. Even his Islamist supporters are turning their backs on him. If the next elections are fair, Erdogan will fall. Believe me.”