The Turkish Nobel prize‑winning novelist Orhan Pamuk never sleeps for more than four hours at a time. He likes to read and maybe write a bit when he wakes. So it was the middle of the night when he learned the news about the attack on Salman Rushdie in the US last month. Like Rushdie, who has needed protection since a fatwa was decreed following the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1989, Pamuk has had bodyguards for 15 years, after he made comments about the 1915 mass killings of Armenians and Kurds in an interview in 2005. Pamuk and Rushdie became friends when they were both living in New York in the early 2000s.
Earlier that day, I had interviewed Pamuk on Zoom about his new novel, Nights of Plague, set on an imaginary island in the early 20th century, at the end of the Ottoman empire. Does it make him more fearful for himself, I asked in a follow-up call. “I would say cautious is the right word,” he replies carefully. At first, unable to sit in cafes, or stroll about his beloved city of Istanbul alone, he worried that having protection would distance him from the everyday life that is his inspiration. But over the years he has become “quite relaxed about it … I’m used to it.” As he likes to joke: “I used to have three bodyguards, now I have one, which means Turkey is improving.”
Unlike Rushdie, the greatest threat to him is not necessarily from Muslim fundamentalists but Turkish nationalists. (Although as he points out: “These two groups are not too distant from each other, as Turkey is currently governed by an Islamic-nationalist coalition.”) He has already been investigated – twice – following the publication of his new novel in Turkey in March last year, for accusations of inciting “hatred and animosity” by insulting the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and ridiculing the Turkish flag. “On which page?” Pamuk asked the public prosecutor. “Of course, there is no page,” he exclaims into his computer screen. The investigation came to a dead end, he says. “They did not clear me nor did they charge me, so we are in limbo.”
He is talking not from Istanbul, the city where he has lived most of his life (he’s now 70), much of it in the same building, and which he has made his own in books including his bestseller My Name Is Red in 1998, and his memoir, Istanbul: Memories and the City in 2005. “Even if I write a novel that doesn’t take place in Istanbul, someone in it has a wish to go back to Istanbul,” he jokes. Today he is staying in his rented villa on the island of Büyükada, one and a half hours from Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara, where he has spent most of his summers since he was a child. Wearing a polo shirt, he is in holiday mode, but has been writing every day; for him writing isn’t working. He flashes me the view of palm trees and lush foliage from his desk. It is a fitting location from which to talk about his new novel, so evocative of Mediterranean island life you can almost smell the sea and bougainvillaea; an island so rooted in the past that, until two years ago, horse-drawn carriages were the main form of transport.
Pamuk’s fictional Mingheria is also based on the tiny Greek island of Kastellorizo (Meis to the Turks), where he often goes in May when it is still chilly in Istanbul, to “write, write, write, swim, swim, swim, and look at the island”, and the much bigger Crete. He is drawn to the fairytale magic of small places, he says. But he had to create a fictional island to ward off accusations of misrepresenting the past: “So my critics don’t come to me and say: ‘Hey, it was not like this!’” he explains. Clearly it didn’t work. It also had to be a small, isolated place, so “history would not move into my novel too much”.
History caught up with his novel anyway. Part romance, part murder-mystery, part historical novel, Nights of Plague is more enjoyable than a 700-page book on the bubonic plague deserves to be (for every description of rose-coloured marble or Mediterranean sunsets there are grisly ones of lancing buboes, rats and ravings). The novel is also, it hardly needs to be said, extraordinarily timely.
Pamuk had been contemplating writing about the plague for 40 years (it hovers over earlier novels as far back as The White Castle in 1985). But in 2016 he realised that the repression that inevitably accompanied an outbreak would provide the perfect allegory for “the increasingly authoritarian” turn of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government. “I decided, ‘OK, why don’t I write my plague novel now?’” Then after three and a half years of research and writing, the pandemic struck. “I thought for a while that my little manuscript that I was slowly, slowly working on had suddenly spread,” he says. “As if the plague jumped from my manuscript to the whole world.” And it is true that all the horribly familiar markers of the pandemic – quarantine rules, hand sanitiser (known in Turkey, in 1915 and today, by its American trade name Lysol), the closure of schools and businesses, face masks and the terrible daily death count – are here, along with the attendant public denial, conspiracy theories and resistance.
“The panic of humanity,” as he calls it, started in March 2020, and he wrote solidly, often in 12-hour days, although Istanbul wasn’t officially in lockdown at that point. “I’ve been a writer for 50 years, which means 50 years of lockdown,” he says. When he first started writing, his friends told him: “No one will read your medieval book, who cares about plague now?” But as the pandemic took hold they changed their tune, calling him to say: “Well, you’re so lucky, it’s so topical.” In fact, he was “very scared”; his aunt, who lived two blocks away, was one of the first people to die of coronavirus in Istanbul. He would say to his now wife (he married his long-term partner Aslı Akyavaş in April): “I’m writing a novel and people are dying like flies. And it’s ironic. Am I a cruel person?”
He hoped when he finished the novel the epidemic would be over too. It didn’t work out like that. Nights of Plague was published in Turkey in March 2021, just as the country went into full lockdown. He recalls going for a walk around a deserted Istanbul, with his bodyguard, on “one of the special days” when only the over-65s were allowed to leave their homes. “There was no one except one or two elderly couples,” he says. “Then we came to the window of the biggest bookshop, where there was a tower of my books, but the bookshop was closed. There was no one to buy them.” He gives a big chuckle. “That was my luck.”
This is not the first time one of Pamuk’s books has turned out to be oddly prophetic. He was about to finish his novel Snow, which deals most directly with the conflict between secularism and fundamentalism in modern Turkey, when 9/11 happened. Margaret Atwood called it “eerily prescient” in a review at the time. Osama bin Laden appeared as a minor character in a couple of scenes, which he deleted before publication. He didn’t make any significant cuts to Nights of Plague, although he did “scale back the quarantine descriptions a bit”.
The novel is “a parable of independence, of how empires fall apart and how nations form”, he says. “It is an allegory about nation-building and about repression and authoritarianism.” Along with Snow it is undoubtedly his most political book. “My novelistic factory, my mind, is producing the same cloth. But this time the cloth is a little bit longer.” As he says, “It’s impossible to avoid politics and be a famous Turkish writer.”
The accusations of mocking Atatürk seem rather to miss the point: Major Kamil, taken by his critics to be based on Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, is a sympathetic and much loved character, whereas the historical figure of Abdul Hamid II – effectively the last Ottoman sultan – comes off much less favourably (although Pamuk has fun with the fact that he was a murder-mystery buff, with a particular interest in Sherlock Holmes). Pamuk is challenging the recent political glorification of the Ottoman empire, which has put the sultan “on a pedestal”, he says. “I also like the Ottoman empire, but not the cruelty, or the way in which it invaded other countries.” With Nights of Plague, he wanted to take a “nostalgic and melancholic look” at the end of the empire, without shying away from the violence or cultural losses it entailed.
The conflict between tradition and modernity runs like the Bosphorus throughout Pamuk’s work. “I am notoriously an east-west writer,” he says. “All of my life has been about that. Some people say Turkish identity is tradition, others say Turkey should be all modernity. What I say is some part from modernity, some part from tradition. But the main argument is: which parts of the tradition should be picked up?”
He describes himself as a “moderniser”, but the nationalists and conservatives who criticise him “for being too much in love with the west” overlook the fact that he writes about the Ottoman era with such nostalgia. “I am a child of modern Turkey, which has excluded all the richness of Ottoman language, music, art,” he says. “These are my grandfather’s fathers. I like to observe that culture – how unstoppable, how inevitable was the decline.” The generation of leftwing Turkish writers who preceded him would never return to that era, “they would think it so boring and old-fashioned”, he says. “While I dig up Ottoman painters or quarantine systems or Abdul Hamid, they want Turkey to just forget all that. I do not.”
In the past he has been taken to task by fellow Turkish novelist Elif Shafak and Atwood for not writing strong female characters, a criticism to which he pleads guilty, at least in respect to his early work. “I agree it’s a man’s world, but Turkey was also a very male world at that time,” he says. “Then I really reformed myself.” Nights of Plague has no shortage of spirited women and is narrated by the great-granddaughter of a fictional niece of Abdul Hamid. He recalls being a guide when Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter visited Istanbul in 1985, five years after the military coup. “Arthur Miller, being such a wise and balanced guy, looked at me and asked: ‘Didn’t these generals do anything positive?’ Everyone was shy, but I said: ‘Well, actually, they legalised abortion in Turkey.’” He tells me this, he says, to show that no one is all good or all bad, “it’s all mixed”. The overturning of Roe v Wade is “such a bad advertisement for America. Such a scandalous thing”.
One of the biggest challenges facing the quarantine officials in Nights of Plague was outrage at the closure of the churches and mosques. An unexpected irony thrown up by the pandemic, Pamuk points out, was that “in the early days Erdoğan behaved like an ultra‑secularist and closed the mosques. While in the US Trump was saying he would not close the churches.”
A paper appeared on the door of Cihangir mosque, on to which his office in Istanbul looks, saying all the mosques in the country were closed because of coronavirus, with a government seal on it. No one objected, he says. “Even political Islamists in opposition did not raise their voices. And I asked myself why? One answer is because there is no free speech in Turkey.”
While Pamuk is by no means poor (he was born into a wealthy family and is Turkey’s bestselling writer), ink cartridges, along with everything else, have become so expensive in Turkey under Erdoğan’s “economic war of independence”, he has reverted to using old-fashioned refillable fountain pens. He always writes by hand, only using the computer to check his email and the news. He has developed a ritual of saving up the cartridges of his four fountain pens to fill at the same time: the more often he has to refill, the better his working day and the happier he is. “I am medieval in my habits: coffee, tea, water, work, work, work,” he says. “I don’t eat in the middle of the day because it makes me sleepy.”
In the room next door, an assistant is helping him to create a set of playing cards based on Persian miniatures for his next novel, which is set in 1942. He delights in imaginatively roaming across periods and locations, and feels it is part of a novelist’s duty to try to see the world from the perspective of “the Other” – the Islamic radical Blue in Snow, for instance, or the street vendor Mevlut in A Strangeness in My Mind (2014): “A different person, different age, a historical figure, a pre-modern mind: these are the joys and limits of writing fiction.” As a writer, he describes himself as “a patient, optimistic ant, who is consistently working and who knows that he will cover his distance in the end”.
He sees the attack on Rushdie, and extremism in general, as the result of “the anger of underrepresented people, people who are ignored, people whose faces we don’t see”. It is the novelist’s job to make these people visible and heard. “A writer has to defend the ideas of free speech and democracy. Then the writer also has to identify with people who break those ideas, and identification most of the time looks like legitimisation. This is the paradox of the writer.”
But he refuses to be too gloomy about the world. “Macron won. Trump lost,” he reminds me. “Why don’t we make a story of that?” He resists the view that rightwing populism and nastiness are spreading “like microbes” across the globe. “I’m not that pessimistic. I see Erdoğan’s polls are dramatically going down. Why should I be pessimistic?”
• Nights of Plague by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Ekin Oklap, is published by Faber (£20) on 22 September. To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.