Orhan Pamuk on his latest novel: ‘It was like the pandemic jumped into the world from my manuscript’

When Orhan Pamuk told a Swiss newspaper in 2005 that no one in his country but him dared mention the 30,000 Kurds and one million Armenians who had died in 1915 as a result of actions by the Ottoman government, he received death threats from Turkish nationalists. A trial followed for insulting Turkish identity. If found guilty, he could face three years in prison. But after international pressure, the process was suddenly halted. He has had bodyguards ever since.

Based on his novel published in Turkey at the end of last year and now also translated The nights of the plague he is again attacked by nationalists. This time he is said to have insulted Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish state, and the Turkish flag. “I was called up to the press service,” he says, on a promotional visit in The Hague and Amsterdam. “There I was told what I had done wrong. I asked them what page it was on. Because I’m not going to offend anyone if I could end up in jail for a few years. Moreover, I am not even mocking Atatürk, but rather understand the national myths created under his rule. I want to show in my book how myths arise and that you need them to unite a people. That phenomenon is timeless.”

Since the attack on Salman Rushdie, a month ago in the United States, Pamuk has been extra wary. After all, you never know who is after you. “But my case is less serious than his, because it has a nationalistic and not a religious meaning.”

You know Rushdie personally from your time in New York. What was your reaction to that attack?

“Writers are never so nice to each other, because they compete with each other. When I wasn’t so famous, I was in Times Literary Supplement wrote a negative review of his novel The Moor’s Last Sigh and he didn’t like that. Our friendship is mainly based on our common beliefs. For me, Rushdie stands for freedom of speech. Whenever he is in trouble, I defend him.”

Your new novel is about a plague epidemic in 1901 on the fictional island of Minger. When did you start it?

“Forty years ago I wanted to write a novel about a medieval plague epidemic. But I kept putting it off. First it had to be about death and individualism, later Orientalism was added: the Western view of the East. Western travelers in Istanbul always wrote that Muslims, in this case the Turks, were fatalistic because they didn’t care about pandemics. I wanted to talk about that fatalism.

„I studied the bubonic plague pandemic of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but also quarantines. I discovered that a quarantine only works under an authoritarian rule. And that subsequently became the premise of my novel, also because President Erdogan and his government have become increasingly authoritarian. My book was supposed to be an allegory about the workings of an authoritarian state.

“I was working for two and a half years when the covid pandemic broke out. Publishers suddenly rushed and shouted that I had to finish the book quickly. A year later it was time. I barely had to change anything. It was as if the pandemic jumped out into the world from my manuscript.”

Your narrator is initially a Turkish historian in today’s Cambridge, based on letters from Pakize, a niece of Sultan Abdülhamit, to her sister. Why did you choose such a frame story?

“In Muslim countries, writing a historical novel involves a number of difficulties. For example, women from the upper class never took to the streets. They lived in harems and were not involved in anything. Pakize was also imprisoned for part of her life, because her father, Sultan Murat V, had been deposed by Abdülhamit and imprisoned in his palace. When she was married off by her uncle to the doctor Nuri, she finally saw the world outside her palace. But she soon ended up in a prison again, that of the lockdown on Minger. All the events there are told to her by men around her. And because the story spans seventy years, I let it be told from the perspective of several people.”

Your novel also resembles an allegory of the fall of the Ottoman Empire…

“…and those of Albania, Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, of countries in Latin America and Asia. Revolutions always happen the same way. But my book is not about the present world. It is an allegory of political repression in general.”

Who are your characters based on?

“Most of them actually existed. Only the island is made up. I needed it because of the isolation. In that regard it seems The nights of the plague on Snowwhich is set in the remote northern town of Kars.”

What else actually happened?

“The medical details and reactions to the plague that came over from China in the early 20th century. Twenty million people died in Asia, but only a hundred in the West. Unlike in China, the West took quarantines seriously. My book is based in part on reports from British doctors in the crown colonies of Hong Kong and Shanghai.”

Didn’t Abdülhamit also have such modern Western doctors around him?

“He was a monarch who stimulated science and improved the infrastructure in his country. But the Muslim doctors in his empire were inferior to their Christian colleagues, especially the Greek Orthodox. They were better educated and came from the elite, the class that always and everywhere supplied the reformers. So Abdülhamit could not set quotas for Muslim doctors simply because they were not there. The elite in the Ottoman Empire did not consist of Muslims. The sultan was therefore unable to really modernize his empire.”

Why don’t the Muslims in your book want quarantine?

“That may have to do with a certain religiously inspired resignation. However, the irony of history is that I was in New York in March 2020 when the pandemic broke out. President Trump went to church in those days and said the pandemic would be over by April, while in Turkey mosques were closed because of the pandemic. I like such paradoxes. That is precisely why it is necessary to write in fiction against the clichés of Orientalism.”

At some point the dictatorship is introduced on Minger. The new rulers invent a national identity, history and language. Why?

“Something like this happens in every empire that is falling apart. In Yugoslavia, for example, my books were translated into one and the same language, Serbo-Croatian. But nowadays I have a Bosnian and a Croatian translator. The language has been torn apart there, those countries suddenly have to defend their own identity. And that involves making up new legends and myths.”

Wasn’t that also the case in Kemal Atatürk’s early years?

“Of course, but not just with him. My book is a universal story. It is not about Turkey, but about all the nations reinventing themselves.”

You have a fascination for court life. Why is that?

“Because it all happened. Abdülhamit had deposed his older brother Murat V because he was mentally ill. But in fact the Turkish army and the bureaucracy wanted to show that they were running the country. At most, the sultans were still symbols.

“The feeling of being deposed at any moment made Adbülhamit paranoid. He interfered in everything and was constantly afraid that his relatives would conspire against him.”

In your novel, Abdülhamit is a lover of Sherlock Holmes stories. Did that also happen?

“Yes, Sherlock Holmes was given to me as a present. Abdülhamit was a worldly man who loved opera and, indeed, read Sherlock Holmes. Only to the outside world he was an Islamist. He used political Islam against the western powers, which he blamed for the crumbling of his empire.

“At the same time, the conflict between secular liberals and religious conservatives in modern-day Turkey can be traced back to the contradiction between the Western-minded intellectual Murat V and the conservative Islamist Abdülhamit.”

Still, was Abdülhamit interested in scientific developments from the West?

“And that is why he is so honored by Erdogan. Abdülhamit spent a lot of money on the development of medicine and the construction of hospitals. But compared to the West, he was poor. The fall of his empire was inevitable.”

Despite everything, you write with great love about the Ottoman world of 1901.

“Unlike Erdogan, I am not proud of the conservative past and military glory of yesteryear. Nor do I put the Ottoman Empire on a pedestal. I do care about the culture of decay and loss. But loving such details doesn’t make me a nostalgic.”

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Also read: A nostalgic between the flats

The article is in Dutch

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