Orhan Pamuk has not written his best novel with ‘Nights of the Plague’ ★★★☆☆


Orhan Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006.Image RV

You never know how a work will stand the test of time. As the new Orhan Pamuk, Nights of the Plague, in a hundred years is seen as his War and peacethis review serves as proof that great novels are not appreciated in the time they are published. Nights of the Plague can compete with . in length and magnificent ’19. century’ design Anna Karenina or The Brothers Karamazov, but does not hold the reader’s attention for 800 pages.

Orhan Pamuk (Istanbul, 1952) was relatively young when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. There are Nobel Prize winners who then find it difficult to continue writing. That was not the case with Pamuk. The first three novels after his award were all highlights of his oeuvre. The Museum of Innocence from 2009 was the baroque story of an obsessed love, The strange thing in my head from 2016 a heartwarming family story, The woman with the red hair from 2017 a haunting short novel.

Nights of the Plague is about a plague epidemic in the year 1901 on the fictional Ottoman island of Minger, a kind of Kos or Rhodes. Pamuk was already working on it before the arrival of covid-19, but that pandemic clearly left its mark on the content. IN Nights of the Plague you will find hospitals that can no longer cope with the flow of patients, anger and incomprehension of quarantine measures and epidemiologists hated by tradesmen and religious leaders.

Too much at once

Maybe that Nights of the Plague would have made a great novel if Pamuk had really made the epidemic his main subject. But the book is also a detective story, also a love story, and also a story about the origins of a fictional nation-state, Minger, including all the myth-making that goes with it. Pamuk is a writer who never skimps on details. He designed Minger’s map with the same precision as the Museum of Innocence from the novel of the same name.

But if you do so much at once, you risk that one is at the expense of the other. This takes place in Nights of the Plague. As the detective becomes intriguing, Minger higher-ups go to an entire chapter meeting on quarantine measures. Once the love story has taken shape, it dwindles into a detail in Minger national myth-making.

Who knows, it might have been less disturbing if Pamuk had not decided to write everything down from the perspective of a fictional historian of Minger origin, Mîna Mingerli. She is generous with adjectives, she can get sentimental, she loves bouquet sequence sentences. “They immediately fell into each other’s arms full of longing.” “His wife’s tearful eyes were an attack on the brave commander’s willpower.” “When I look at the eighty-three black-and-white photographs of extraordinary melancholy, I feel my eyes moisten, just as it happened to the Queen back then.” Mîna Mingerli is Pamuk’s parody of a type of writer from southeastern Europe, the older academic woman who is no longer aware of kitsch in her narrative writing.

Persimmon flakes

Few writers enjoy writing from parody more. Pamuk also did it in e.g. The House of Silence, My name is Crimson and The strange thing in my head. But where five, six, seven different characters narrate in those books, there is Nights of the Plague only one speaks, Mîna. Pamuk must have laughed out loud at his desk overlooking the Bosporus at another Mîna phrase about ‘the brave commander and his beautiful wife’. As a reader, after a few hundred pages you think: stop now.

All the major themes of this novel are addressed by a narrator who is a parody. She must keep the detective exciting, the pandemic radical and the rise of the nation-state convincing. It is difficult for a persiflage. They say you have to choose whether you want to be beautiful or funny: if you try to be both, you risk becoming neither.

The best chapters in Nights of the Plague are the ones where the story becomes so oppressive that Pamuk omits the Mîna sentences. Then you notice that the author is actually one of the greatest writers of our time, that few are able to portray such a wealth of characters, and that in the material for Nights of the Plague a five star novel. Then a counter-reader should have asked Pamuk to limit himself and devote himself less to finds. Such counter-readers are often few in the vicinity of Nobel Prize winners.

Orhan Pamuk: Nights of the Plague. Translated from Turkish by Hanneke van der Heijden, with contributions by Margreet Dorleijn. The busy bee; 764 pages; €34.99.

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