Orhan Pamuk: Nights of Plague

Orhan Pamuk’s longest novel to date unravels with a pace that tends to linger, to wit: it is not for readers who are in a hurry. For that reason, I found it strangely refreshing. Strange because it is a plague narrative that is not meant to be refreshing, refreshing because of the reading experience it provided; defiant of the modern reader’s preference for a literary quick fix, and defiant of our silly reading goals that have more to do with the number of books rather than the languid relishing in an author’s descriptive prowess.

Perhaps I simply feel at home in the expression of an author whose mind is a museum of melancholy, but I am now sensing that part of the allure is in how his books are written for their own sake — written because he felt they needed to be written rather than written for their salability. Isn’t that pure art?

Set in 1901, in the fictional island of Mingheria, “on the route between Istanbul and Alexandria,” it is a curious deviation from a usual Pamuk novel that stays within reach of Istanbul. While Snow is set farther in eastern Turkey, an invented island between Crete and Cyprus is still a surprising backdrop for seasoned Pamuk readers; but only until we realize that the creation of Mingheria allows for a certain leverage and freedom for political criticism. Methinks Mingheria speaks more about Turkey than it does about an imaginary island nation in 1901. 

This novel can teach a thing or two about running a nation during a plague; about epidemiology; how to deal with resistance from different sectors against quarantine measures; how plagues do not distinguish between Christian or Muslim; how failed attempts at containing a plague can fan the flames of a revolution; how revolutions can be exploited; the similarities between solving a murder and stopping an epidemic; and living or loving through the sickness and political ferment. It is about plagues, revolutions, nationalism, the administrative and language reforms that ensue, the fickleness of governments, about the accidents of history, how history is made, and how history is written.

It echoes Camus’ The Plague in the way that the narrator’s significance is revealed only at the end and also for the chilling reminder that plagues reappear throughout history “for the bane and enlightenment of men”.

Unfortunately, man easily forgets, and unwittingly asks to be reminded ever so often.

Ryszard Kapuscinski: The Other

There is the romantic in me who would like to write an ode of admiration to this exceptional journalist for tackling a most pertinent matter and there is also the dormant journalist tempted to fangirl. However, the teacher of little children prevailed and simplified the lessons instead.

Who is my “Other”?

Those who do not hold the same beliefs. The most obvious right now are those who do not share the same political views.

How should we relate to Others?

There seems to be three approaches: War, isolation, and a third one learned through trade routes like the Silk Road — cooperation.

Why not war?

“It is hard to justify wars; I think everyone loses them, because it is a defeat for the human being. It exposes his inability to come to terms, to empathize with the Other, to be kind and reasonable…”

Why not isolation?

“The idea that prompted man to build great walls and vast moats, to surround himself with them and isolate himself from others, has in modern times been given the name of the doctrine of apartheid.”

What is the main content of the encounter with the Other?

Dialogue. Dialogical openness, perspective, and awareness. “The will to become acquainted.”

What should I equip myself with?

“…it is so important to have one’s own distinct identity, a sense of its strength, value and maturity. Only then can a man boldly confront another culture. Otherwise he will lurk in his hiding place, fearfully isolating himself from others.”

Why should we cooperate and why should we relate to the Other?

Because building bridges of understanding with Others “is not just an ethical duty but also an urgent task for our time in a world where everything is so fragile and where there is so much demagogy, disorientation, fanaticism and bad will.”

“The Self not only has to relate to the Other, but must assume responsibility for him and be prepared to bear the consequences for such a decision, such an attitude. Is there a Christian act of sacrifice in this? Yes — of sacrifice, renunciation and humility.”

Mario Vargas Llosa: The Language of Passion

The Language of Passion is an excellent education on writing and thinking.

The topics in this Nobel laureate’s book of essays and articles are broad — from politics and religion to art, literature, and spaces, and the scope of the material manifests the breadth of his mind.

“That two truths are ‘contradictory’ doesn’t mean they can’t exist side by side,” Llosa writes. This reminds me of another line I encountered in Maria Popova’s Figuring, “It seems to be difficult for anyone to take in the idea that two truths cannot conflict.”

Llosa was writing about both the Israeli and Palestinian right to a particular piece of land and Popova was referring to the conflict between religion and science.

This is the sort of contemplation that I am subscribing to at this point in life; and that I did not have to embrace all of his opinions while admiring the way he expressed his thoughts is, I believe, part of the immediate result of a Llosa education.