Orhan Pamuk – The White Castle

14Feb09

Pamuk’s The White Castle won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2006, and after reading this book, it is not difficult to figure out why. The Turkish author offers immense insight into the life, philosophies and the psychology of the Hoja (master or teacher) and his slave – a young Italian intellect who was captured by the pirates, and auctioned on the Istanbul slave market. in the 17th century.

The book is narrated by the ‘slave’, who is described as a scientist, a doctor and a scholar. Initially, when he reaches Turkey, he is thrown into prison, and earns minimal money by diagnosing and treating the other inmates. The news of his medical ‘superiority’ spreads far, and eventually, the pasha asks him to diagnose and treat his medical ailments – which the Italian succeeds in. Following this victory, the Italian is asked to help someone who we know only as the Hoja, a courtier to the sultan, who is supposed to create a wondrous never-seen-before firework display. Working together, the two of them manage this great feat, and throughout, the Italian scholar contemplates asking for his freedom as his reward. However, when the time comes, he is told that he can acquire his freedom if he converts to the Islamic faith. When he refuses, the pasha sells his contract to the Hoja, and the narrator ends up becoming his slave. The
Hoja wants to use him to gain all the knowledge the narrator has on the science of the Western world. In fact, the clause for freedom is grounded in the narrator imparting all his knowledge to his master.

This is where the story actually builds, and takes shape: in the complex master-slave relationship, where the two men continuously try to play games with each other, to outdo the other, and feel superior. The Hoja is a scientist, a man who yearns to learn, and consistently asks his slave about the Western culture and science. Sometimes, the narrator tells the truth, sometimes he exaggerates it, and sometimes, he merely lies. However, when their games become more psychological, we see how despite everything, the slave still loves his master, and wants the best for him. He tries to encourage the Hoja to play to his strengths, helps him in each endeavor to wow the sultan – from discussing weapons of mass destruction, to try and determine when the plague will leave the city, to writing children’s fantasy stories. The book climaxes when the Turks go into battle with the Poles and want to employ the weapon created by the Hoja in an attempt to destroy the ‘White Castle’ (hence the name).

This book, albeit only 145 pages long, is slow and sometimes painful. It almost seems as if nothing is happening – but, that, I think is the very essence of the book: to capture that feeling of endless waiting (be it the Hoja awaiting a call to the sultan’s palace, or the slave longing to go home). We also see the (in)famous east meets west clash, where both parties feel they are superior to the other, and try to provoke each other into feeling inferior. It explores the challenge of each individual asking the question: “Why am I what I am?” (the Hoja, a proud man always ends up dismissing his fellow countrymen as ‘fools’, who have no keenness towards science), and then… it shows how the two men’s personalities rub off on each other, and they imbibe a part of the other. A beautiful passage is devoted to the sultan entertaining both men, and accurately determining which thought (or action) originated from which person, while the master and slave are engaged in a conversation with him.

This is the first book I’ve read, by a Turkish author, and while I’m none too wiser about life in Istanbul in the seventeenth century, this fictional tale, with its philosophical meanderings has won me over. I’m looking forward to the next book I read by Promuk.

Overall, a 7.5 on 10.

PS: I’m still contemplating on why the book is called ‘The White Castle’ and what it represents. I have a few opinions, but I wouldn’t want to share that, lest I ruin the (semi-predictable) ending.

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