ORHAN PAMUK has had two pandemics to worry about. One confined him and millions of other Turks to their homes for long stretches of the past year. The other struck over a century ago, germinated in his mind for years, and eventually spread through the pages of his new novel, “Nights of Plague”.
Mr Pamuk, Turkey’s most celebrated author, says he began writing the book five years ago. (At his home in Istanbul, he sits a good 20 feet from your correspondent; he turns 70 next year and takes social distancing seriously.) He set the novel on a fictional Ottoman island in the Aegean in the early 1900s, amid an outbreak of bubonic plague. Just as he began to wrap it up, covid-19 hit Turkey. Reality intruded on fiction. “Suddenly my private world was gone; everyone was using my words,” he says. “Everyone was talking about quarantine, like they were researching this book.”
The resulting writer’s block lasted two weeks. Then the disease raging around him, plus anxieties about his own health, made the author reimagine the pestilence his characters had to endure. He rewrote swathes of the book. (Given the magnetic view from his desk, of the ferries and container ships criss-crossing the Bosporus and the rolling Istanbul skyline beyond, it is a wonder that he manages to get any work done at all.)
“Nights of Plague” has just been published in Turkish and comes out in English next year. Mr Pamuk is intent on discussing it—but cannot help talking about the state of Turkey. A chat between two Turks about music or literature no longer seems possible without politics elbowing in; the stench of repression is everywhere. His next appointment, says Mr Pamuk, is with Murat Sabuncu, a journalist who recently spent over a year in prison on bogus terror and coup charges. Days earlier, one of Mr Sabuncu’s guests on an opposition television channel stumbled into the studio with his fingers broken. A critic of the government, he had just been attacked by nationalist thugs. “They put everyone in jail, but this is not enough, so they beat [people] up,” says Mr Pamuk, shaken.
In 2005, a year before he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature, Mr Pamuk had his own brush with prison when prosecutors charged him with “insulting Turkishness”. His offence was to have spoken a few words to a Swiss newspaper about the slaughter and forced deportation of over a million Armenians by Ottoman forces during the first world war. He faced up to three years behind bars, but the charges were eventually dropped. Even now he periodically receives death threats because of those and later remarks. He still has a police bodyguard.
The rest is silence
“I was always in trouble because of my interviews, not because of my novels,” he says. With his latest book, that might change. Already he has had to deny a popular columnist’s claim that he has mocked Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, in the person of a character. He may face more heckling for his treatment of Abdulhamid II, a sultan who sought to prevent the Ottoman Empire’s collapse by mixing autocracy with pan-Islamism.
Modern Turkish Islamists—including the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan—have reinvented Abdulhamid as a hero of the late Ottoman era. A period drama about the sultan’s final years in power, aired on state TV, goes further, depicting him as an archetype for Mr Erdogan and a victim of European and Zionist intrigues. Words spoken by Mr Erdogan one week regularly come out of Abdulhamid’s mouth in the next week’s episode. His portrayal in “Nights of Plague” is less charitable. “Abdulhamid closed parliament, did not care about free speech, and…