You may not know the small island of Minguer, also called “the pearl of the eastern Mediterranean”. In this province of the Ottoman Empire, a deadly epidemic of plague spread in 1901, forcing an eminent virologist to go there on the orders of Sultan Abdülhamit II, with the mission of bringing a population who wants little to know about lockdowns and health restrictions. Well, they surely don’t know anything about Minguer because it’s the imaginary island on which the new novel by Turk Orhan Pamuk (Istanbul, 1952), Nobel Prize for Literature, takes place. plague nights (Random House/Més Llibres), which will go on sale on Thursday 7. Due to its content, Pamuk is being sued for insulting the Turkish homeland and therefore faces a request for three years in prison The author responds to matters of the vanguard via videoconference, from his apartment in Istanbul with an impressive view of the Bosphorus Strait, which he proudly points to, moving the laptop.
“I was writing about a pandemic in 1901 and suddenly the Covid arrived, I felt guilty”
Come on, you see the boats go by…
Yes, and it is in this building over there that Russia and Ukraine are negotiating, I watch them from my balcony, I see their entrances and their exits.
We have been following him since, in 2001, he was a finalist for the Llibreter prize with The house of silence. plague nights It seems to us – excuse the cliché – his most ambitious novel, and we do not say so because of its size (732 pages).
It is. It explores the rise of nations in the modern world after the fall of empires, it is full of colorful characters and themes. It took me five years to write it and forty years to develop it.
In the house of silence (1983) mention a historian who investigates a work of the Ottoman Empire, in the white castle (1985) I deal with the plague of the 17th century in Istanbul…I started writing this because with every epidemic, historically, governments become authoritarian to enforce quarantines…and I have an authoritarian government here permanently.
The novel is somewhat reminiscent Snow (2001), because Minguer is also an isolated place where foreigners arrive.
Isolation is a great literary invention. A plane crashes in the Amazon, what will the survivors do? This arouses great curiosity. García Márquez or Daniel Defoe have written about castaways because, isolated, the essence of what is human becomes very visible.
At first, we all look for Minguer Island on our phone map, but…
It’s imaginary. Literature has many islands in its geography, starting with Thomas More’s Utopia. Why didn’t I install it in Crete, where I lived? Because my place should be the allegory of something else.
It shows how nations are born…
We see the fall of empires and what rises from their ashes. The king, the sultan, the shah, the kaiser, the warlord, whatever you want to call him, disappears, and when he dies, the shadow of God over mankind dies, religion loses weight and a secular nation emerges. To sacrifice yourself for the nation, you must have some kind of sacred mythology. If God is no longer important enough for us to die for him in war, we must invent a secular mythology. With the new nations, we invent great myths, as strong as the old ones.
You write this novel and the pandemic breaks out. Does he have shamanic powers? Does what you write happen?
It’s pure coincidence. At first, I felt a little guilty, although friends congratulated me. My novel had absolutely nothing to do with current events and, suddenly, it became a reality. It seemed that this virus had jumped from my pages to the world.
The plague affects some neighborhoods more than others…
It’s true that in my novel it’s the Muslims who resist the quarantine, much more than the Christians. But the reason is not religion but education. In the Ottoman Empire, Muslims were poorer and less educated than Christians. In general, we are now very educated compared to the year 1901. Only 5% of people could read and write and could understand what a microbe was.
The female characters have tremendous strength.
As I get older, I want to see the world through the eyes of storytellers. This is not for political correctness but for justice, especially in the Middle East. We should all try to see the world through the eyes of women, I will explore this more and more.
A real character appears, Sultan Abdülhamit II.
He loved opera, detective novels, Western culture. He invited Conan Doyle to Istanbul and awarded him a medal. And Conan Doyle mentions it in a Sherlock Holmes story.
There are many tragedies, but we read them with a permanent smile.
I had doubts. I constantly asked my wife while writing: ‘A lot of people die, is it morally acceptable that they make people laugh? You think I’m crazy?’ She said, “Go ahead, Orhan.
Listen to your wife.
I still listen to it! I read her what I write every day and she encourages me to continue. What more could you want?
Let’s be serious: for having written this novel, they are asking him for three years in prison for insulting the Turkish nation. But you are ironic about nations in general, not against just one.
I agree but such is life in this part of the world, I am still accused of horrible crimes. I don’t answer, I try to survive and navigate the accusations. The prosecutor says that I am ironic with Atatürk, which is false. Ironic about generating new national myths and legends but this is not something exclusive to Turks, all nations have done this, you also have your founding fathers and your myths and your anthems and flags, don’t is this not ?
What happens to him is as Kafkaesque as what he recounts in the novel.
The prosecutor questioned me in his office in Istanbul. He informed me of the charges against me. I said, ‘On which page did I commit this crime?’ And he was unable to tell me a specific number. Kafka or Beckett would be imprisoned in today’s Turkey. I trust my lawyer, ten years older than me, a man of great experience and great wisdom, a founding member of all the banned “communist” parties, who told me: “Don’t worry, Mr. Pamuk, the complaint gets lost in the complex judicial mechanisms of this country”.
What does it tell us about the narrator?
She is the great-granddaughter of the Ottoman Sultan. In 1982, at the age of 30, I met the heir to the throne of the empire. She would be our queen today, or her children. She was with her husband, they spoke a different Turkish, very aristocratic and elegant, with many nuances. I will never forget this conversation, which shocked me. They speak like my characters of Dr. Nuri and his wife, Princess Pakize Sultan, referring to you rather than you.
Characters drop like plague flies, but those who remain suddenly all change position in the new regime.
I show the fleetingness of ambition for power. And the charm of these small countries where, for example, as in Montenegro, the prime minister was a waiter in New York, or the finance minister of Bangladesh is a former taxi driver. These things fascinate me, it happens in places like Albania, where there is a lot of mobility between courses, you talk to a guy one evening in the bar and the next day he is the king or the queen of country. This gives the patina of a fairy tale to realistic fiction, like the oral stories told by certain characters.
People don’t see him as an action writer, but here there are shootings, a riot in prison…
How I love these scenes! These are things I would like to read, I love riots, prison environments. Unfortunately, many Turkish writers have been in jail and when they got out they wrote about it. I’m lucky because so far I haven’t experienced it.
Not you, but there are 25 writers imprisoned in Turkey in a single year.
Yes, I know them, and I feel very guilty for being free. I have the responsibility to make my voice heard but, compared to these courageous journalists who exposed corruption, I am not in real danger and I am ashamed to be compared to them. The other day I met a friend who had been in prison for two years on the street, I hugged him very tightly and you know what he said to me? : ‘Orhan, thanks to prison I was able to read all your novels! ‘ . I don’t know if I should be happy…
Erdogan said the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to “a Turkish terrorist”. Then the government spokesman came out saying he wasn’t talking about me. Of course, of course, he was surely referring to any other Turkish Nobel laureate in literature! There are so many…”
Have you ever thought about leaving Istanbul?
In 2019, Erdogan lost his patience, which happens frequently, and at a university he was asked about the newly awarded Nobel Prize to Peter Handke. He doesn’t care about his precious novels, only that he supported Milosevic, an ally of Russia, so he showed his anger at Handke, the Swedish Academy and said: “They also gave this same award to a terrorist in Turkey.” At that time, I was at New York airport, waiting to board for Istanbul, and I suffered thinking about what my reception would be like in a country where the president calls me a terrorist. Then the government spokesman came out saying that Erdogan was not talking about me. Of course, of course, he was surely referring to any other Turkish Nobel laureate in literature! There are so many… Which of them would you refer to? This is how you live in Turkey, my friend.
What do you think of the war in Ukraine?
I hope peace will come soon. I will tell you, first of all, that they are not all equally responsible, but that it is Putin who provokes it. As Russia was our oldest enemy, Erdogan aligned himself with NATO and anti-Western Islamists and nationalists now agree with the left because they saw that NATO was not a such a bad thing, that’s the only good thing about all this great horror.
At the end of his book, Minguer negotiates his entry into the European Union. Are we expecting the Turks one day?
I actively participated in the negotiations for Turkey’s accession to the EU between 2001 and 2008. I am sad that this did not happen. With Erdogan, we have moved even further apart. I am pro-Western, a pro-European Turk and I say it loud and clear: I don’t like the anti-Western populism that is so fashionable at the moment.
What do you see when you go out?
People are very angry. Only for a year, or in six months, my God, what inflation! The price of many things has doubled. People are getting poorer and starting to get angry with Erdogan. If the upcoming elections are really free and fair, Erdogan will lose, I’m sure.
How’s your Museum of Innocence?
We are still open, we have recovered the number of visitors from before the pandemic, we are perhaps the only museum in the world to have become again as before. From now on, our public is Turkish, and not tourist, because in confinement my fellow citizens have found the time to read my books. They are welcome !