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  • Writer's pictureJohn Lantos

Nights of Plague and Lessons of History

Orhan Pamuk’s novel Nights of Plague feels ripped from the headlines. A deadly infectious disease that started in China is threatening the world. Leaders first deny the threat, then harness fear and confusion to expand their authoritarian powers. Journalists write scurrilous stories, there are supply chain problems, unproven treatments, and conspiracy theories. Efforts to control the outbreak are too little and come too late.

There is a parallel, too, in the ways that uncertainty persists, even decades later, about what, exactly, happened. The narrator is careful to supply sources for claims about what actually happened but also registers suspicion about some of the first-hand reports. Everybody is a player, working the plague, as they pursue personal or political ends.

The novel is set in 1901, the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. Sultan Abdul Hamid II is on the throne. It was a time of scientific exuberance. In the prior decade, Yersin had discovered the plague bacillus and Simond showed that it was transmitted from rats by their fleas. These scientific breakthroughs suggested that effective treatments were on the horizon. They weren’t. The plague pandemic waxed and waned throughout the world for decades. It caused over 15 million deaths.

As the novel starts, there are reports that plague has broken out on the (fictional) Mediterranean island of Mingheria. The Sultan secretly sends his Chief of Public Health, Stanislaw Bonkowski, to investigate and, if plague is present, to implement quarantine measures.

Bonkowski recognizes the challenges. Mingheria is geographically idyllic and politically chaotic. The population is roughly half Turkish and Islamic, half Greek and Christian. The two cultures don’t understand or trust each other. Bonkowski explains, “To accept quarantine is to accept westernization, and the farther east one travels, the more tortuous the matter becomes.” (17)

The island’s most prominent Muslim cleric explains to the public health authorities that the most appropriate response to the epidemic can be found in the Quran, “The Prophet said, ‘Those who proclaim that plague is contagious are no better than people who look for signs in the movements of birds and owls and snakes and hope to find some king of meaning.’” Europeans, he notes, will misguidedly call these people fatalists. (p358)

The political chaos becomes palpable when Bonkowski and his assistant are both murdered while they begin investigating the plague outbreak. A younger doctor, Dr. Nuri, who is married to the Sultan’s niece, takes over the investigation of both the plague and the murders. The stage is set for epidemiological and political disaster.

Dr. Nuri wants to take a scientific approach based on the epidemiological principles that had been pioneered in Europe. He explained to the Sultan that “an epidemiologist could uncover the mystery behind an outbreak without examining a single patient – all by sitting in his office and studying a map.” (p195)

The novel is an extended refutation of the power of science to address the complex political, cultural, religious and psychological forces unleashed by the pandemic. Dr. Nuri’s failures are similar to those of the CDC and NIH in response to COVID-19. Recently retired NIH Director Francis Collins summed those up nicely when he noted that the science was excellent but the communication quickly got caught up in culture wars. “There are things about human behavior that I don't think we had invested enough into understanding. We basically have seen the accurate medical information overtaken, all too often, by the inaccurate conspiracies and false information on social media. We're having serious conversations right now about whether this ought to be a special initiative at NIH to put more research into health communications.” The goal, according to Collins, would be to understand better how — amidst the tribalism of our current society -- people size up medical information and make decisions.

Pamuk offers a useful if pessimistic perspective on the things that have changed and those that stay the same. He graphically portrays the limits of science to guide policy, and also about the limits of historical analysis to tell us what really happened. One frontispiece quotation for the book comes from Italy’s greatest novelist, Manzoni, whose masterpiece about another plague noted, “No writer has so far attempted to examine and compare these narratives to write a true history of the calamity of the plague.” The preface notes, “This is both a historical novel and a history written in the form of a novel.” The unnamed narrator (whose identity we learn in the end, as we do in Camus’ plague novel) realizes that “an understanding of the subjective decisions taken by the protagonists…could not be achieved by historical method alone.” Pamuk’s novel is as much about the ways that we recreate and then tell stories of past events as it is about the events themselves.

Plagues and pandemics, like wars or famines, are catastrophes but they are also opportunities. Pamuk describes how the necessity to burn some buildings in some cities became the basis for urban renewal projects. He shows how (in he novel) the pandemic gave energy to a nascent liberation movement for Mingheria, just as (in real life) it contributed to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.

Community organizer Saul Alinsky suggested that change agents should let no crisis go to waste. Medical historian David Jones noted that pandemics create both opportunities and risks for leaders. He notes, for example, that President Gerald Ford, endorsed mass immunization against a “swine flu” outbreak that never materialized. The vaccine caused illness and death and he subsequently lost his race for President. On the other hand, Ronald Reagan ignored the AIDS epidemic and won by reelection by a landslide. Luck plays a part. The story of the COVID-19 pandemic would have been very different if the first experimental vaccines had not been so unexpectedly safe and effective.

When historians look back on the COVID-19 pandemic, what stories will they tell? Interpretations of history shape the future. There is much that remains to be explained. Beckett noted that the task of the artist today is to “find a form that accommodates the mess.” In a pandemic, there is plenty of mess to be accommodated about the ways that political leaders, once granted emergency powers, used the public health emergency for their own ends. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán used emergency powers to make it illegal for transgender individuals to alter their birth records. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu suspended the courts that were slated to adjudicate charges of corruption against him. Donald Trump considered the use of emergency powers to cancel the 2020 elections.

Walter Benjamin wrote historians should not aspire to see the past “as it really was.” Instead, the must “seize hold of memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger.” Pamuk uses history in this way, refracting the past through the lens of the present. His hope is that we learn how pandemics and other emergencies are not exceptions to the norm. The past is a battleground on which we fight for versions of our own history that will help us understand current events and make better choices, even in conditions of radical uncertainty.

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