Plague strikes a small Ottoman island in 1901.
Nobel laureate Pamuk’s latest novel is a behemoth: 700-some pages about a fictional island in the Mediterranean under siege by plague. Mingheria, in Pamuk’s imagining, is populated by both Muslims and Orthodox Greeks, who react with varying levels of obedience to the strictures of quarantine. Set in 1901, the novel also takes on the dwindling of the Ottoman Empire and the tensions between West and East, modernity and tradition, and science and religion. There is a lot at play here, and while Pamuk’s prose is as elegant and informed as ever, an occasional hint of pomposity does waft through his pages. Then, too, there is so much information to be conveyed that the burden sometimes falls to his characters, and dialogue becomes an unfortunate vehicle for exposition. So, for example, the young doctor who has been sent to Mingheria to help tells his wife, the former sultan’s daughter, “Let me first tell you of the state the international quarantine establishment finds itself in.” It’s possible the novel is overdetermined. The frame for the narrative is as follows: Princess Pakize, that young doctor’s wife, has been writing long letters about the events at hand to her sister, and, more than a hundred years later, Mîna Mingher, a scholar, is narrating a novel based on those letters. On top of all that, there’s a murder mystery at play. And yet, despite these flaws, Pamuk’s storytelling is so compelling and coy; his intelligence and interests so wide-ranging; the project, as a whole, so ambitious, that the book has survived its own excesses. There is a great deal here to savor.
Not quite a triumph, Pamuk’s latest work still manages to delight.