There are at least three more questions I want to ask Orhan Pamuk. I tell him that, with an eye on the tiny, blinking clock on a corner of my screen. “I don’t know, you have only three minutes,” he replies.
He is in New York, I am in Delhi, and he has more meetings lined up for Nights Of Plague, his new, 704-page meta historical-fiction and political mystery. It’s set on an imaginary island in the last years of the Ottoman empire, during a pandemic—the bubonic plague.
We had barely finished the “can-you-hear-me-can-you-see-me” routine of most Zoom calls when Pamuk tells me he is a bit jet-lagged. It is 9am Eastern and he has just returned from Paris. But just as I am about to start on my list of questions, he interrupts me excitedly.
“I want to show you, look!”
Pamuk dips away from the frame for a second before coming back with a book. It isn’t Nights Of Plague.
“I was in Paris to promote a book. It is this book. I hope it is published in India,” he says almost breathlessly. “It’s not Nights Of Plague,” he stresses, just in case I haven’t caught on. “A lot of this book is about India…(here) is my days in Goa…this is the Bombay train station…You see?”
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The book he is showing me is Souvenirs Des Montagnes Au Loin, a just-published sketchbook of sorts, with handwritten and hand-drawn entries. It is, I sense, close to Pamuk’s heart.
When he was 22, the writer, who had always wanted to be an artist, stopped drawing. On the last page of his 2003 autobiographical memoir, Istanbul: Memories And The City, he recalls how his mother told him never to give up architecture for the one thing he had loved ever since he was a seven-year-old—art. “In a country as poor as ours…(y)ou’ll suffer terribly if you do,” she warns, pleadingly.
Now 70, the 2006 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature notes in a blurb for Souvenirs that he realised about a decade ago that the painter in him had never died. He has been drawing every day since. It’s his way of journaling, even talking to himself to sort through his thoughts—even thoughts about the books he’s writing.
“Anyway,” Pamuk interrupts himself, going on to explain that this unplanned tangent is a way of telling me that he feels close to India and his Indian readers. He pauses and nods. Let’s start.
It isn’t surprising, perhaps, that Pamuk seems, at least initially, more excited about Souvenirs—he had been thinking of writing Nights Of Plague for 40 years and actually started writing it five years ago.
The initial thoughts were “about existentialism, about death, an overabundance of death, a pandemic killing people”, he says. “Oh, and also about an Orientalist representation of Eastern nations, countries and empires where quarantine was hard to impose. I wanted to write against that.”
This isn’t the first time he has been ahead of the curve. I tell him that critics are calling him prescient—they have done so earlier, too. “Oh, meaning they are calling me prophetic?” It’s a rhetorical counter question. There’s a faint smirk on his face. “I mean, thank you to whoever is complimenting me as prophetic, but there is statistics…that once in 80 or 100 years humanity has pandemics like this; it’s not a coincidence,” he says.
When he began writing Nights Of Plague, his friends wondered if anyone would care to read it. “These things have passed. No one will understand quarantine,” he recalls some as saying. “Three-and-a-half years into writing it, suddenly we had the coronavirus pandemic. Now the same people call me and say ‘you are lucky your book is so topical’.”
It was the same with his 2002 book, Snow. Before writing it, Pamuk had begun tracking the rise of political Islam. “But they didn’t see it in America…. I am writing my novel and suddenly we are overtaken by history, by such a big event (9/11), which made my novel very topical. In fact, it drove up the sales of that book globally,” he acknowledges.
Years before any of us had imagined the possibility of a global virus, Pamuk began extensively researching quarantine, trying to use it as a setting to study how authoritarianism could play out. However, it was only when he began experiencing life starting March 2020 that he realised a fundamental flaw in Nights Of Plague, one he had to address.
“When (the virus) came, I was so afraid. And it made me realise that ‘my God, my characters are not afraid. They are not as afraid as I am’,” he says. “And believe me, the bubonic plague was 10 times deadlier than the coronavirus. It killed one-third of the global population. If you got the bubonic plague, there was no way out: You are dead.”
The world is more informed today. But, Pamuk says, people acted exactly as they did in the past, just as he had found in his research for the book. First and foremost was denial, just like now. “There is no exception. Good government, bad government, dictators, or the most democratic, they all deny. Then, the second stage is that when you deny, the numbers go up. When numbers go up, people get angry. They blame the government, they blame everyone else. They say ‘the Muslims brought it’ or ‘the Jews brought it’ or ‘the Christians brought it’, or ‘the people in the next village brought it’. Then, there are conspiracies, like ‘oh, did you see this guy, he was putting the plague on in the fountain’, or they are poisoning (something),” Pamuk notes. “We also had that, that also has not changed…. In the end, people demand so much that governments are obliged to be authoritarian because that’s the only way you can make people (adhere to quarantine),” he adds.
The slightly overwritten and meta nature of Nights Of Plague lends well to this universality of experiences across countries and centuries. It is what fiction, ideally never myopic, hopes to achieve. Yet the book has come under fire in Turkey—some parties have been offended by one of its characters, Major Kamil, saying the character is an attempt at lampooning Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founding father of the Republic of Turkey.
Reading Nights Of Plague in another country, however, one of the major, most continuous strands is of Pamuk’s thoughts on the discourse of nationhood. “The story is about the formation of a secular nation state after the empire dies. The Emperor, whether you call him a Shah or a Badshah, or a Kaiser, or a King or a Sultan, it doesn’t matter—but he has godly qualities, he is a sort of a shadow of a god. And once he’s gone, you have to invent a secular god in a way.”
Nights Of Plague tries to chronicle just this—“the invention of secular mythologies because you need these sacreds to motivate people…so that in the next war they are dying or killing for the flag, for the land, for the country, when earlier they used to die for the Emperor only,” Pamuk adds.
Yet the reaction of his detractors is understandable to some extent—like Kamil, Atatürk, too, was once a young military man, critical of the Ottoman empire; he later quells opposition to establish Turkey, while Kamil breaks Mingheria away from the fast-fading empire. But Pamuk holds his ground: “Since I have so many enemies in Turkey, they will say this is Kemal Atatürk. But my character, by his physical (attributes), his outlook (is different from him). In Turkey, Islamists attacked Kemal Atatürk because he enjoyed alcohol. My character does not touch alcohol. But this is not enough. They are just angry, anything is (good as) a source of attack at me,” he says.
He has faced this for so long that I wonder what he thinks is a productive way to be angry at someone’s work, and what the acceptable limits of backlash against creative expression or opinion might be. Pamuk calls this “the issue of our times”; it is a paradox, he says, quoting German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s antinomies. He goes over a range of scenarios, both hypothetical and real, and how he feels, how he responds through each. A few more detours later, he pauses. “Free speech is a value—the biggest that I believe in. And if that includes some insults to me, I accept it,” he says.
Maybe it was, as he had warned me at the start, the jet lag; maybe he was just in a hurry to wrap up, but it seemed that for the moment, Pamuk was tired of politics and pandemics. When I ask him what he thinks might come of the pandemic novel in general—the sub-category has been growing, perhaps an inevitable and natural consequence of recent experiences and traumas— Pamuk doesn’t miss a beat. “I don’t know,” he says. “I never wrote about it because it’s topical.”
He continues: “In fact, I was thinking when I was writing (Nights Of Plague), I was asking this question, did people after World War II read war novels? Once humanity suffers and that period ends, people don’t want to read about those horrors immediately; they want to read about rosy, flowery loves stories—they want to forget the horror, this is my experience.” Then he adds a thought that sums up not only his clever enmeshing of politics and pandemics, but one that has me expecting more works with quarantine as a launchpad for sociopolitical commentary: “In isolated situations, history concentrates in more dramatical ways.”