This was my first Orhan Pamuk and I’m sure it’s very clever, but not the kind of clever I can appreciate. I had the same feeling with If on A Winter’s Night a Traveler: I knew something quite intellectual was happening, but my brain wasn’t interested enough to make the effort.

The White Castle starts off with an entrancing premise – a 17th-century Venetian student doctor is captured by Ottoman pirates and taken to Constantinople as a slave. He is sold to Hoja, a scholar, with whom our main character (we never know his name) bears a close physical resemblance. Almost from the start the master demands that his slave tells him everything about his life and teaches him all he knows.

After a while the Sultan starts noticing Hoja’s astrological predictions, and makes him the Imperial Astrologer. He also asks him to build a giant weapon, which they plan to use to take the White Castle. But that’s not the most important part of the story. Over the years, and as they work closely together, master and slave begin having conversations about what makes a person who they are. They look so alike that, if they were to exchange knowledge of each others’ history and secrets, could they actually exchange identities? So the slave starts to fear that his master will kill him and take over his former life in Venice.

The whole book is told in the first person, but almost always using indirect speech (grammar people, is that the right way to describe it?). A direct transcription of something being said is very rare and short, although their conversations are at the core of the story. The narrator is always describing what’s happening without letting people talk for themselves:

Towards morning, in order to calm his nerves, he recited to me once more this piece of rhetoric about the logic of the turning of the planets but this time he recited it backwards, like an incantation. Loading our instruments on a wagon he borrowed, he left for the pasha’s mansion.

This made it grindingly monotonous and dry. Like I was listening to a dubbed movie where all the characters are played by one person with the same tone of voice. I found myself alienated from the story.

It’s pretty unusual that a historical novel set in Constantinople/Istanbul doesn’t make a strong impression of time and place. Unfortunately, The White Castle left me with no lasting images, no recollection of the narrator’s day-to-day life, no memory of the city’s sights, sounds or smells, clever descriptions, one-liners or clever figure of speech. Thinking back, I only recall an endless chain of sentences with little emotional value.

Ultimately, the book felt like an excuse to discuss existentialism, identity and the master-slave dialectic. I don’t mind philosophy in my novels, but if the story and setting are so secondary, I’d rather be reading non-fiction.

I’m not ready to give Pamuk a pass yet, I love Istanbul too much and heard too many good things about My Name is Red.

***

Other thoughts: another cookie crumbles, Culture Vulture, A Life in Fiction (yours?)

Book read for One, Two, Theme Challenge
Theme 4: Byzantium/Constantinople/Ottoman Empire/Istanbul


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