Orhan Pamuk novel Nights of Plague a story of disease and murder
Bonkowski Pasha had barely begun to establish his regime of disinfection and forced quarantine when he was assassinated. The Sultan, an avid reader of European detective novels, entrusts the task of discovering the murderer to another doctor, Doctor Nuri, the husband of his niece Princess Pakize, who (not entirely by chance) arrived with his wife in Mingheria on the same boat. like Bonkowski and is now stuck there.
The instruction is for Doctor Nuri to solve the case in the methodical fashion of the estimable Sherlock Holmes. Sami Pasha, the local governor, can only accede to this request, even if he does not really see the problem with the traditional Ottoman method of guessing who committed the crime, arresting them, then whipping their soles of the feet until they confess.
The overall vanity of plague nights is that it is a work of history written more than a century after the events it describes. This allows for the many discursive passages in which Pamuk’s narrator explains the history and culture of Mingheria. It also has the virtues of avoiding the quality of costume drama that sometimes plagues historical fiction. The acknowledged historical distance introduces uncertainties and an element of cheeky romanticism that gives the narrative a slightly mythical twist.
Part of Pamuk’s considerable ambition in plague nights reveals itself in the way in which the murderous enigma, initially presented as the emblematic narrative form of a certain Western scientific rationalism, is subsumed by the larger historical context. He comes to be understood less as a form of cultural imperialism than as an extension of the sultan’s autocratic rule (he is particularly fond of stories where the detective works “in harmony with the state and the police”).
The question of who killed Bonkowski is ultimately submerged in a complex series of political maneuverings and fateful events that culminate in a “revolution” (not so much a mass uprising, more an almost accidental coup), which culminates to the Mingherian declaration of independence. .
With this story of the turbulent birth of a nation-state, Pamuk opens deep questions about the tragic contingencies of history and the forging of national myths. It’s an extraordinary achievement (and oddly prescient, considering Pamuk started writing it four years before the 2020 pandemic).
With nearly 700 pages rich in exhibits, plague nights is well into baggy freak territory, and it has its lengths, but the skill with which Pamuk synthesizes its disparate elements and the compelling palpability of its imaginary setting combine to make the novel one of his finest creations.
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