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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Nights of Plague

Orhan Pamuk

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To purchase Nights of Plague

Title: Nights of Plague
Author: Orhan Pamuk
Genre: Novel
Written: 2021 (Eng. 2022)
Length: 683 pages
Original in: Turkish
Availability: Nights of Plague - US
Nights of Plague - UK
Nights of Plague - Canada
Les nuits de la peste - France
Die Nächte der Pest - Deutschland
Le notti della peste - Italia
Las noches de la peste - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Turkish title: Veba Geceleri
  • Translated by Ekin Oklap

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Our Assessment:

B : fulsome and unrushed, for better and worse

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic . 11/2022 Judith Shulevitz
The Guardian . 21/9/2022 Lucy Hughes-Hallett
The LA Times . 4/10/2022 Steven G. Kellman
Le Monde . 7/4/2022 Marc Semo
The NY Times Book Rev. . 2/10/2022 David Gates
The New Yorker . 31/10/2022 James Wood
The Spectator . 24/9/2022 Boyd Tonkin
Sunday Times . 18/9/2022 Peter Kemp
TLS . 9/9/2022 Andrew Motion
Wall St. Journal . 8/10/2022 Sam Sacks
World Lit. Today . 3-4/2023 Matt A. Hanson

  Review Consensus:

  Generally positive, but no consensus; most do suggest there's a bit much here

  From the Reviews:
  • "Paranoia is Pamuk’s great subject and the engine of his style. He forces you to read through scrims of suspicion and doubt. No fact, no backstory, is ever what it seems. (...) To parse a Pamuk novel, you can’t focus exclusively on plot. You have to pay close attention to how the story is told. Pamuk sets fictions inside metafictions: His narrators explain how they found the letters or manuscript on which they will base their tale, only to undermine that claim with offhand revelations and jarring changes of tone. By the end of a Pamuk novel, the scaffolding established at the beginning has usually collapsed, leaving readers dangling in midair." - Judith Shulevitz, The Atlantic

  • "Yet, for all the weight of its subject matter, its tone is lightly ironic, arch, even flippant. It has many flaws. It is repetitive; it contains far too much exposition. All the same – formally and in terms of content -- it is one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year. (...) Pamuk is hiding behind two masks, two assumed female voices. He is also an impressionist, trying out other period-appropriate authors’ personae. (...) The novel’s chronology is as far from straightforward as its narrative strategy. (...) (I)t is a compendium of literary experiments, ludic, audacious, exasperating and entertaining." - Lucy Hughes-Hallett, The Guardian

  • "A museum of imaginary history, Nights of Plague is stocked with stuff that a more frugal curator might choose to deaccession. (...) The narrator, sharing her research three generations after the fact, writes in the tepid voice of an archivist, not a poet." - Steven G. Kellman, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Pamuk’s delight in art and artifice is inextricable from his realistic accounts of disease, poisonings and assassinations, political intrigue, cultural and religious enmity, gender inequity and medical futility. (...) Nights of Plague is more fun to reflect upon than to wade through." - David Gates, The New York Times Book review

  • "What is most vital in this book is what is most fictional: Pamuk’s lovingly obsessive creation of the invented Mediterranean island of Mingheria, a world so detailed, so magically full, so introverted and personal in emphasis, that it shimmers like a memory palace, as if Pamuk were conjuring up a lost city of his youth, Istanbul’s exilic, more perfect alter ego. The effect is daringly vertiginous, at once floatingly postmodern and solidly realistic, something like Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities crossed with the nostalgic re-creations of Joyce’s lost Dublin, or Joseph Roth’s vanished Austro-Hungarian Empire.(...) As you’d expect in such a long novel, there’s a good deal of plot, but the book is engrossing and easy to read. The result is strangely paradoxical: a big but swift novel, a novel about pain and death that is fundamentally light and buoyant." - James Wood, The New Yorker

  • "Stricken Mingheria becomes a microcosm of the Ottoman twilight. (...) Pamuk crams his Mingherian map with precise, almost obsessive detail. It thickens the texture but slows the pace. Ekin Oklap’s cleverly voiced translation captures our historian’s fussily pedantic, sometimes tortoise-footed, story-telling. Go with its leisurely flow, however, and the island saga can exert the hypnotic pull of those historical soaps Turkish TV does so well." - Boyd Tonkin, The Spectator

  • "Pamuk establishes his cast with a marked lack of rhetorical flourish: if the intention is to create the appearance of reliable historical accuracy, it succeeds almost too well. The accumulation of characters and of background details, many of which serve no purpose in powering the plot, can feel suffocating in their profusion. (...) The book’s 700 pages don’t create much variety in pace, despite the torrent of events that pours through them. But the objective tone of the prose, which allows for a sense that all human activity, however noble in intention, might be infected with foolish vanity, and which is well caught by Oklap’s alert translation, means that a necessary degree of lightness attaches to even the gravest of its themes." - Andrew Motion, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(W)hile undoubtedly courageous, the politics in Nights of Plague require so much context and explication that the story takes a long time finding its feet. The degree of detail feels staggering -- there are even paragraphs devoted to styles of mustache waxing -- and because the characters are mostly pashas and princesses, the writing, in Ekin Oklap’s cultured translation, can seem mandarin and finicky. (...) In the end it’s good old-fashioned plot and incident that bring this novel to life. By around page 450 the sediment of information finally settles and the story unfolds the scintillating events of Mingheria’s revolution and subsequent civil wars." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "As a Turkish novel, Nights of Plague remains topical, perhaps even prescient. Pamuk, despite his tendency to rarified elitism, is a bold critic of present-day Turkey. The story of the novel reflects certain political currents that hold fast. (...) Many of his characters bear striking resemblances to historical personages, so much so that Nights of Plague can sometimes read like a lightly veiled novelization of history. (...) Nights of Plague can, at times, feel bogged down by digressions (.....) The novel comes at a crucial time to rethink the boundlessness of liberty as individual identity remains circumscribed by the historicity of what the powerful few have written." - Matt A. Hanson, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Preface to Nights of Plague begins with the claim that:

     This is both a historical novel and a history written in the form of a novel.
       The purported author is a woman named Mina Mingher, writing in 2017, with the book proper then -- this novel-cum-history -- focused on events from the very beginning of the twentieth century. A final section of the book, some fifty pages long (in a long book ...), is presented as a kind of postscript from 'Many Years Later', Mingher again coming to the fore and filling in some of what happened in the meantime, as well as explaining her personal interest in and engagement with the subject-matter and some of the characters. (She also slips in a mention of the actual author (and her acquaintance with him), mentioning that: "the novelist and history enthusiast Orhan Pamuk has told me of how he would obsessively visit the exhibit once a week during a period in the 1980s".)
       Mingher explains that she was inspired by and then based much of this book on the letters written by one Princess Pakize to her sister Hatice Sultan between 1901 and 1913, and this princess is one of the central figures in the story. She is the daughter of real-life Ottoman sultan Murad V, who was deposed and replaced on the throne by his brother Abdul Hamid II in 1876 and lived out his life essentially under house arrest, dying in 1904. Abdul Hamid took care to keep these relatives out of the way, so they could not pose a threat to his rule, and married off Princess Pakize to a doctor, Nuri Bey -- and then sent the newlyweds off as part of a special delegation to China, in 1901.
       Nuri Bey is a quarantine doctor of some renown -- and the ship they sail on has yet another expert in the field on board, Bonkowski Pasha. Bonkowski Pasha is, however, not being sent to China but rather only to the nearby island of Mingheria, a (fictional) province of the Ottoman Empire. (In her Preface Mingher acknowledges that some people: "saw the island of Mingheria as a mythical, fairy-tale land", but here it is treated as a real part of the Ottoman Empire, with much of the surrounding history (and people) very much real.) It appears that the plague has reached Mingheria, and Bonkowski Pasha is to oversee the handling of the situation.
       Princess Pakize and her husband are mean to sail on after the ship stops in Mingheria, but they are waylaid there; they will only be able to continue their journey some six months later. The bulk of the novel takes place during that half year on the island, as the plague makes its way through the population, with Princess Pakize spending much of her time isolated in her rooms (though ultimately also becoming -- briefly -- a very public figure).
       Near the outset, Bonkowski Pasha is murdered -- and: "opera-loving, crime novel-reading sultan Abdul Hamid" tasks Princess Pakize and her husband with investigating the murder -- à la Sherlock Holmes (of whom he was a fan). There is also the plague to deal with, and various efforts to contain it -- with a population that isn't all on board with the idea of quarantine. Political turmoil ensues -- and ultimately, taking advantage of a blockade by European powers of the island seeking to contain the spread of the plague, Mingheria declares independence, opening a whole new chapter of its history.
       The fictional Mingheria is a small island, with a population of some 80,000 in 1897. Noteworthy, however, is that there are an about equal number of Muslims and non-Muslims -- though the island is only in some respects well-integrated, and the different communities remain in many ways distinct (and there are a variety of tensions among them). It is part of the Ottoman Empire -- but this is an empire that has been in terminal decline for quite a while. The foreign representatives on the island are important figures -- even as the Governor Pasha complains early on that they are simply: "a meddlesome, impertinent gaggle of ignorant shopkeepers who are making a fuss of this outbreak nonsense purely to spite me". Foreign interests and actions do play an important role -- never more so than with the eventual sea-blockade by various powers that proves vital to Mingheria's hold on independence: "The blockade is the reason the island's independence endures".
       Nights of Plague combines many elements and stories. The murder mystery, of Bonkowski Pasha's death, bubbles on for quite a while, and other crimes occur as well, including a rather sensational large-scale poisoning attempt. Different factions handle and react to the efforts to contain and stop the spread of the plague in various ways -- sufficiently so that it proves hard to get under control for a long time. There's considerable vying for power, too -- and also then quite some turnover at the top, as Mingheria goes through quite a few rulers in this short span. There's romance, torture, assassination attempts, prison riots and escapes; for a long time gallows stand in the prominent State Hall Square. And all the while people -- a lot of people -- are dying of the plague.
       At one point, well into the story, the narrator (who occasionally raises her head like this in the text) notes:
Our readers must not think that we are straying too far from our story if we too take a moment now to examine the reasons behind this phenomenon.
       It's only one of many such digressions and deep-dives: much of Nights of Plague ambles on at a very leisurely pace, looking left and right along the way and filling in backstory and history. There is solid adventure here, but also a great deal of what can feel like embellishment. There's purpose to most of this -- Pamuk isn't merely offering an adventure-tale, but rather also commentary on history, power, politics, and much else -- but it makes the narrative energy often feel rather low; readers have to adapt to and accept the slow, steady trot of this presentation.
       It is, ultimately, a lot, and while a great deal does happen Pamuk rarely lets the narrative itself be truly driven by the action. Mingheria itself is certainly lovingly made real; arguably, it is the main character in the story, and certainly the one Pamuk puts the most effort into presenting fully. All this makes Nights of Plague the kind of novel that's meant to be slowly savored: it is does offer a lot that is satisfying, from adventure to romance to political observation -- but it also demands some patience, and some endurance, on the part of the reader.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 November 2022

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Nights of Plague: Reviews: Orhan Pamuk: Other books by Orhan Pamuk under review: Other books of interest under review under review:

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About the Author:

       Internationally acclaimed Turkish author Orhan Pamuk was born in 1952. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2006.

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© 2022-2023 the complete review

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