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Orhan Pamuk: Veba Geceleri (Nights of Plague)

At around the end of the nineteen century/beginning of the twentieth century, a plague epidemic, seemingly coming from East Asia, gradually moved westwards and spread from port to port, as ships carrying rats and people with plague carried the virus. The West blamed the Muslims because of pilgrimages to Mecca and there was certainly some truth in that. However, the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II had taken steps to set up quarantine stations to catch any incidents. Moreover, it was British ships that carried many of the pilgrims and these were unsanitary and massively overcrowded, helping to spread the plague.

The narrator tells us that she started by editing the letters of Princess Pakize, third daughter of Murad V. Murad had been usurped by his half-brother Abdul Hamid and he and his family, including three daughters, have been confined to a fairly small palace in Istanbul. Abdul Hamid had eventually married off the three daughters to worthy but relatively unimportant men. Pakize, the third daughter, had been married to Doctor Nuri, a leading epidemiologist. We learn much later that the narrator, Mina, is their great-grand-daughter.

If you check the this article on Murad V you will see that his third daughter was in fact Fatma. Pakize is entirely fictitious, presumably so that, in this book, she can do things a real Ottoman princess would not. The letters led the narrator to write the story in the form of a novel and here it is, narrated by a woman who tells us that she is a native of Mingheria, the fictitious island, under the control of the Ottomans, located between Cyprus and Alexandria, where most of this novel is set.

Mingheria has its own language and culture but, at this time, 1901, is divided more or less equally between Muslims, who generally speak Turkish, and Greeks who speak Greek, though many Mingherians speak Mingherian, a language we learn little about. The island is part of the Ottoman Empire, ruled by a career bureaucrat, Sami Pasha, an Albanian by birth. He feels that the Greeks want to foment trouble in order to gain independence from the Ottoman Empire, as Crete had recently done. One of the key themes (which got Pamuk into a certain amount of trouble) is the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, as various territories break free. As the book continues more or less to the present day, we see the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the formation of modern Turkey.

The other key issue concerns events in China, specifically the Boxer Rebellion. China, under attack by the Japanese, had called on the West for help but the West had extracted concessions and has seemingly colonised parts of China. This led to the Boxer rebellion. The Muslims in China (the Uighurs?) had supported the native population. The Sultan was caught between showing support for the Muslims and antagonising the West. He compromised by sending a delegation to China which would urge the Muslims not to attack Western interests. This delegation contained, to their and everyone else’s surprise, Dr Nuri and Princess Pakize.

The ship made an unexpected stop at Smyrna where Bonkowski Pasha and his assistant Doctor Ilias were taken on board. Bonkowski was born in Istanbul to a Polish father who had fled Poland when the Russians took over. Dr Ilias was Greek. Bonkowski was the Ottoman Empire’s Chief Inspector of Public Health and Sanitation and had successfully suppressed a plague epidemic in Smyrna (and various other plagues elsewhere). He was now being sent to Mingheria where, it seemed there was a plague epidemic.

When they arrive, Bonkowski and Ilias notice the lack of rat traps and, indeed, any quarantine measures. The Governor said what every mayor and provincial governor the world over always said when faced with an outbreak of contagious disease. “There is absolutely no epidemic in our city”. However, it soon becomes apparent that there is an epidemic. we have already followed the story of a prison guard who caught the plague and soon died.

We follow in some detail the attempts to avoid panic but contain the plague. The two doctors take the necessary steps. Various people try and resist. The rich Greeks try and flee. The animosity between the two groups is increased. Bonkowski decides to go wandering about on his own. We have an vague idea of what might have happened but we know for certain that his bloodied corpse is found two hours later.

Dr Nuri and the Princess are hurriedly sent back to Mingheria with the doctor given the instructions both to contain the plague and investigate the murder. The Sultan is a fan of Sherlock Holmes, so Nuri plans to use his methods. The Governor, however, has his own methods (arrest the usual suspects). Things get more complicated with a further death.

The very long and very detailed book tells what happens and focusses on a few key characters. The heroes, if that is the right word are the Princess and her doctor husband. The other heroes are Major Kamil and his wife. The Major, a native of Mingheria, is the Princess’ bodyguard, but will later play a key role in dealing with the plague and the move towards Mingherian independence. He will marry Zeynap, a local woman who was to have married another key character, Ramiz, a local trouble-maker. Other key characters include the Govermor, Sami, Pasha and Sheikh Hamdullah, the local religious leader who believes that the plague can be cured by the prayer sheets he hands out. He is, of course, wrong.

I suspect the book was conceived and, at least partially written well before the recent covid epidemic. However, it is interesting to make the comparison. The terms used here – quarantine, cordon and curfew – are slightly different from the ones we have been used to but the principles are the same. As with covid there are people who are opposed to the quarantine, those who routinely break it and those who think that it does not apply to them. Plague is clearly different from covid as there are far more fatalities, it is transmitted by rats and both dead bodies and the bedding, clothing and so on of those afflicted must be disposed of effectively.

Pamuk tells a very complex story, going through all the political manoeuvrings, including the move towards independence, both internally and externally as well as the investigation into the murder of Bonkowski, religious issues, particularly between the different faiths, Mingherian culture and Mingherianisation, spies, crime and corruption, police brutality (the advantages of torture versus Sherlock Holmes-like investigation) and various romantic liaisons. A few key characters also die. He covers the local issues but also the international ones, including, as mentioned,the break-up of the Ottoman Empire but also the games played by the great powers (UK, France, Germany and Russia) to protect their interests and the ins and outs of Ottoman politics.

I must say that this was a very enjoyable, complex and long tale. If you enjoy a long novel with a lot going on, fascinating ideas, a mixture of colourful, worthy and decidedly unworthy characters and a series of intertwining plots, you cannot fail to enjoy this book.

Publishing history

First published in 2021 Yapı Kredi Yayınları
First English translation in 2022 by Faber & Faber/Alfred A. Knopf
Translated by Ekin Oklap