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With his new novel, Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk creates a grand temporal panorama of the early 20th century. Photo: dpa © dpa

“Plague Nights”: With this new title, two links immediately come to mind: on the one hand, the epidemic that has been spreading around the world for more than two years. On the other hand, Albert Camus, the second laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, who took up this topic and created a classic film with “The Plague”. But even if in his new book Orhan Pamuk talks about life and death with a plague that includes everyone and everything, it has become a work that takes its own literary path – by creating a small closed world in about 700 pages.

Moreover, the great storyteller ended it completely when Corona started to conquer the world.

1901 in the Aegean Sea

Its history is set in Pamuk in 1901, and the Minger Island in the Aegean is ruled by a ruler from the capital of the Ottoman Empire. In order to determine their places, there is a drawn map of the capital Arkaz right at the beginning of the book, where all its districts are listed. But despite this tremendous love for detail, Arkaz and Minger are inventions of the author, who was born in 1952. Since then, he has devoted himself with great vitality and precision to describing this place, which was based on extensive research on time and region.

Arkaz and its environs are also pretty much the only places in this novel, which in turn brings more people together with a social jigsaw. The island, which according to Pamuk is similar to Crete in size and vegetation, has become a kind of treacherous Arcadia where most people live largely peacefully together. Or rather: next to each other. Apart from the majority of the Turks, who feel bound by the sultan in distant Constantinople, there are also many Greeks whose national consciousness developed at the beginning of the century. But the European colonial powers are also trying to exercise more and more influence through their consuls who were sent to Menger. The tragedy of the First World War, which will eventually divide peoples from one another, is yet to come.

Then the plague breaks out and the Sultan sends an experienced doctor of infection to the island to prevent its spread to the entire Ottoman Empire. But soon the paramedic was killed by strangers as the plague spread, and Menger was placed in quarantine. This decision of the Sultan carries with it enormous explosive power for social coexistence. Because the islanders are now prisoners of their own homeland and so is a strange disease that will not stop at anyone. And soon chaos reigns.

Orhan Pamuk makes a contemporary historian the narrator of this drama, who continues to sort and evaluate developments in the past. This creates a somewhat distant perspective, which is also created by (supposedly) the most important source of events: the young wife of a quarantine doctor who regularly sends letters to her sister.

But none of the many people who appear in the course of the story becomes the central character in the novel. So the various characters often remain very flat and bloodless, often dying again soon after being identified as a reader. But Pamuk manages another feat with his easy-to-read book: it shows the different personalities that people have grown up with in the face of existential crisis: love and hate, compassion and opportunism, commitment and fatalism – all of which can be seen here. Its complexity ensures that the development of this novel will have a tremendous impact towards the end. This gives the impression of some kind of eternal human destiny, regardless of the plague or Corona. This Orhan Pamaux Island is the whole world – and anything but imagination.

Orhan Pamuk: Nights of the Plague. 696 pages. 30 euros. Hanser.

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