Orhan pamuk has had two pandemics to worry about. One confined him and millions of other Turks to their homes for long stretches of the past year.
The other struck over a century ago, germinated in his mind for years, and eventually spread through the pages of his new novel, “Nights of Plague”.
Mr Pamuk, Turkey’s most celebrated author, says he began writing the book five years ago.
(At his home in Istanbul, he sits a good 20 feet from your correspondent; he turns 70 next year and takes social distancing seriously.)
He set the novel on a fictional Ottoman island in the Aegean in the early 1900s, amid an outbreak of bubonic plague.
Just as he began to wrap it up, covid-19 hit Turkey. Reality intruded on fiction.
“Suddenly my private world was gone; everyone was using my words,” he says. “Everyone was talking about quarantine, like they were researching this book.”
“Nights of Plague” has just been published in Turkish and comes out in English next year.
Mr Pamuk is intent on discussing it—but cannot help talking about the state of Turkey.
A chat between two Turks about music or literature no longer seems possible without politics elbowing in; the stench of repression is everywhere.
His next appointment, says Mr Pamuk, is with Murat Sabuncu, a journalist who recently spent over a year in prison on bogus terror and coup charges.
Days earlier, one of Mr Sabuncu’s guests on an opposition television channel stumbled into the studio with his fingers broken.
A critic of the government, he had just been attacked by nationalist thugs. “They put everyone in jail, but this is not enough, so they beat [people] up,” says Mr Pamuk, shaken.
In 2005, a year before he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature, Mr Pamuk had his own brush with prison when prosecutors charged him with “insulting Turkishness”.
His offence was to have spoken a few words to a Swiss newspaper about the slaughter and forced deportation of over a million Armenians by Ottoman forces during the first world war.
He faced up to three years behind bars, but the charges were eventually dropped. Even now he periodically receives death threats because of those and later remarks. He still has a police bodyguard.
“I was always in trouble because of my interviews, not because of my novels,” he says. With his latest book, that might change.
Already he has had to deny a popular columnist’s claim that he has mocked Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, in the person of a character.
He may face more heckling for his treatment of Abdulhamid II, a sultan who sought to prevent the Ottoman Empire’s collapse by mixing autocracy with pan-Islamism.
Modern Turkish Islamists—including the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan—have reinvented Abdulhamid as a hero of the late Ottoman era.
A period drama about the sultan’s final years in power, aired on state tv, goes further, depicting him as an archetype for Mr Erdogan and a victim of European and Zionist intrigues.
Words spoken by Mr Erdogan one week regularly come out of Abdulhamid’s mouth in the next week’s episode.
His portrayal in “Nights of Plague” is less charitable. “Abdulhamid closed parliament, did not care about free speech, and made Ottoman Istanbul a police state,” says Mr Pamuk.
He is a famously meticulous writer, recalling the Ottoman miniaturists in one of his earlier books, “My Name is Red”, a murder mystery set in 16th-century Istanbul.
Though such forensic attention to detail can lead to impenetrable prose, for the most part Mr Pamuk’s shimmers.
He pores over old maps, photos and manuscripts, drawing sketches and painting watercolours of his characters.
After writing “The Museum of Innocence”, a novel about a lovesick hoarder, he assembled the everyday objects described in the book and enshrined them in a small, remarkable museum.
For “Nights of Plague” he devoured all the pandemic literature he could find. He studied cholera’s progress from China and India to Ottoman lands, aboard steamships packed with Muslim pilgrims heading to Mecca and Medina, and the resistance to quarantine measures across the empire.
But it took the mounting toll of today’s pandemic—the way heads turned when someone coughed or sneezed on the metro or at a nearby table—for him to realise that something was missing.
He sensed that omission again when Istanbul, a city of 15m people, sank into morbid silence during its lockdowns, and when he prowled its empty streets at night with his bodyguard and his camera, flanked by stray cats and dogs.
“I had imagined my world, but the one thing I couldn’t imagine”, he says, “was fear. My characters in the book were more fearless before the coronavirus.”
Mr Pamuk likes to joke that he used to have three bodyguards and now has only one, which means that Turkey must be improving.
A more plausible reason is that he is no longer at the centre of the country’s political storms. That, he says, is because the centre has vanished.
Liberals in Turkey have generally been a lonely, endangered species. But a decade or two ago they could at least hope to be heard. Now they have been muzzled.
In 2017 Mr Pamuk gave a long interview to what was once Turkey’s newspaper of record, in which he said he opposed constitutional changes that granted Mr Erdogan sweeping new powers.
Fearing the government’s wrath, the paper killed the story. Mr Pamuk has since stopped speaking to the big Turkish news outlets. They have stopped asking him.
Now, he says, there is no room for truly free speech. “A unique thing that I haven’t seen in this country before is these silences when the name of our president comes up,” he observes.
“Before, you could say something nasty in a taxi or a supermarket. Now it’s silence.” ■