A virus, a quarantine and a ruler who denies the risks: this is the novel that Orhan Pamuk imagined four years before the pandemic

Orhan Pamuk and his new book “The Nights of the Plague”

“I write because I have an innate need. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry. I write because I can only take part in real life if I modify it. I write because I believe in literature more than anything else. I write because they expect me to write. I write because it’s exciting to put the beauty of the world into words. I write because I never knew how to manage happiness and I want to be happy“, said Orhan Pamuk, Turkish writer who won the Nobel Prize in 2006applauded in one of the gigantic halls of the Guadalajara Fair in 2018.

Pamuk had already started writing his new novel, The nights of the plagues, in 2016 when the pandemic was not on the radar of humanity but was on the mind of the Turkish writer, and the COVID-19 pandemic would bring a forgotten topic back into force. This time the Turkish Nobel places us on the imaginary island of Minguer and at the beginning of the 20th century to immerse ourselves in the rawness of survival and the struggle of the protagonists dealing with the prohibitions of quarantine and political and religious instability.

From the first line of the book, which has a historian named Mina Minguerli as the narrator, it is clear that in the following more than 700 pages the reader will find a “historical novel as a story written in the form of a novel”, in which he tells a story set in 1901, during an epidemic of bubonic plague.

"the nights of the plague"by Orhan Pamuk
“The Nights of the Plague” by Orhan Pamuk

The novel begins with the journey of Princess Pakize Sultan and her husband, Dr. Nuri Bey, to the imaginary island of Minguer, “the pearl of the Eastern Mediterranean”, in an official Ottoman retinue. Also in the delegation is the empire’s health inspector, the chemist Bonkowski Pasha. But the island is isolated and the virus circulates through Muslim neighborhoods. Then, the inevitable parallels begin with what the whole world has been experiencing since 2020: a governor who denies the disease, opposition from merchants, rumours, religious rivalries and a political rebellion. The plot turns to thriller before the murder of an important Ottoman scientist that will make history take a turn.

The nights of the plagues came to bookstores wrapped in controversy: Orhan Pamuk was accused of offending one of the founders of Turkey in its pages. But it is not the first time that the Turkish writer has been involved in accusations by the government of that country. For example, in 2005 he faced charges of “insulting the nation.” Charges were filed against the perpetrator of Snow Y my name is red after Pamuk said in an interview with a Swiss magazine that 30,000 Kurds and a million Armenians had been killed in Turkey “without anyone daring to discuss it.” In 2011 he was also sentenced to compensate the Turks with 6,000 lira (3,000 euros) for his defense of Armenians and Kurds. His political position, along with that of other writers and artists, puts the focus back on freedom of expression in Turkey.

What is certain is that this new novel by Pamuk enriches the narrative of the plagues that began Alessandro Manzoni, Daniel Defoe Y Joseph Saramago.

Orhan Pamuk at the Guadalajara Book Fair (Photo: EFE)
Orhan Pamuk at the Guadalajara Book Fair (Photo: EFE)


This is both a historical novel and a story written in novel form. When I tried to narrate the six most intense and eventful months of life on the island of Minguer, the pearl of the eastern Mediterranean, I added numerous events in the history of this country that I love so much to my story.

I was researching the events that took place on the island after the plague epidemic of 1901 when I felt that historical science would not be enough to explain the subjective determination of the heroes of this brief and dramatic period and that it would improve its understanding with the help of the art of the novel, so I have tried to unite these two disciplines.

Readers, please, do not believe that my starting point is these lofty literary problems. First, some letters came into my hands whose richness I have tried to capture in the book. I was asked to annotate and edit the one hundred and thirteen letters that Pakize Sultan, the third daughter of the thirty-third Ottoman sultan, Murat V, wrote to her older sister, Hatice Sultan, between 1901 and 1913. The first chapter of the book available to read consists of an “editor’s foreword.”

The foreword grew longer, grew richer as I researched, and became the book you hold in your hands. First of all, I must confess that I was bewitched by Pakize Sultan’s intelligence and charming and extremely sensitive style. He had little of the historian’s or novelist’s eagerness for narrative, interest in detail, or talent for description. I am a woman who for years has read, in English and French archives, all the reports that the ambassadors wrote in the port cities of the Ottoman Empire, I dedicated my doctorate to them and have published thoughtful treatises. No ambassador has come to recount the same events, the days of cholera or the plague, with such depth and beauty, none of them perceives the atmosphere of the Ottoman port cities nor the colors of their markets and bazaars, nor hears the squawks of seagulls or the rattle of horse-drawn carriage wheels. Perhaps it was Pakize Sultan’s narrative, full of life, presenting itself to me with intense sensitivity to people, things, and events, that suggested I turn the editor’s foreword into a novel.

As I read the letters, I asked myself the following question: could it be because of her status as a “woman” that Pakize Sultan could describe the same events more colorfully and “thoroughly” than historians and ambassadors? Let us not forget that, during the days of the epidemic, the writer of those letters practically never left her room in the guest quarters of the seat of the governorate, and that she only found out what was happening in the city for what she was doing! that her doctor husband used to tell her! Describing in his letters this whole world of politicians, bureaucrats and doctors, Pakize Sultan managed to identify with them. I have also tried, as much as I could, to bring that world to life in my novel-story. And, of course, it is very difficult to match Pakize Sultan in clarity, brilliance and zest for life.

Another reason for my enthusiasm for these magnificent missives, which will occupy at least six hundred pages when published, is that, of course, I am also a daughter of the island of Minguer. When I was a child I used to come across Pakize Sultan in textbooks, in newspaper articles and, above all, in national children’s magazines (Island Lessons, Historical Science) in which heroic deeds and illustrated novels were published weekly. . In fact, he felt a special closeness to her. In the same way that the island of Minguer could be a fabulous place for others, as if it had come out of a fairy tale, Pakize Sultan was for me a mythical heroine. Thanks to those letters that at one point fell into my hands, I met a fabulous hero, the Sultan, who managed to captivate me with his daily problems, his true feelings and, most importantly, his strong personality and great frankness. My patient readers will also see at the end of the book how I have come to know her in person.

I have been able to verify the authenticity of the world described in these letters through my work in Istanbul, in Minguer and in archives in England and France, as well as by reviewing the memories and documents of that period. However, while writing my historical novel I couldn’t help but identify with Pakize Sultan, as if I felt I was writing my own personal story.

♦ Born in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1952.

♦ He studied architecture and journalism, and has spent long periods in the United States as a professor at the universities of Iowa and Columbia.

♦ He is the author of the novels Cevdet Bey and sons, the house of silence, the white castle, the black book, The new life, my name is Red, Snow, The Museum of Innocence, a strange feeling Y The woman with the red hairas well as non-fiction volumes Other colors, Istanbul. city ​​and memories, My father’s suitcase Y The naive and sentimental novelist.

♦ It has won the Best Foreign Book Award in France, the Foreign Médicis Award, the Grinzane Cavour Award in Italy, the IMPAC International Award in Ireland and the German Booksellers Peace Prize.

♦ He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006.


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A virus, a quarantine and a ruler who denies the risks: this is the novel that Orhan Pamuk imagined four years before the pandemic