Book Review: The White Castle By Orhan Pamuk

The White Castle is a unique novel because it has no dialogue but more so because it portrays a society on the crossroads of modernization and tradition.The narrator, a young Venetian scholar and engineer who, sometime in the early 17th century, is captured by the Turks and taken to Istanbul, becomes the slave of an extremely minor Turkish courtier called Hoja who is obsessed with restoring the superiority of the Ottoman Empire over the Europeans by mastering their science.

The White Castle is a unique novel because it has no dialogue but more so because it portrays a society on the crossroads of modernization and tradition.

The narrator, a young Venetian scholar and engineer who, sometime in the early 17th century, is captured by the Turks and taken to Istanbul, becomes the slave of an extremely minor Turkish courtier called Hoja who is obsessed with restoring the superiority of the Ottoman Empire over the Europeans by mastering their science.

Hoja forces the narrator to teach him science. As time passes on, his quest for power turns into a quest for knowledge, and as Hoja forces the slave to reveal everything he knows, his life and his studies, Hoja finds himself telling the slave more and more about his own story.

Hoja soon wonders whether or not, given their closeness and the fullness of their knowledge about one another, it would be possible for them to actually become one another, and inhabit each other’s life.

When the plague breaks out, he uses the narrator’s fear of it to torment him further. When it appears that the plague has killed him, the narrator runs away. Hoja, still alive, reclaims him. Hoja continues trying to learn about the narrator’s past.

After the plague subsides, Hoja obtains the post of imperial astrologer.

Competing over the influence of the sultan’s mother and his youthful impatience, he sets out to create a great weapon that will prove his brilliance, and that of the Ottoman Empire's.

They work on the weapon for the next six years. During this time, the narrator is shocked at how much Hoja knows about his past, and his mannerisms, and can imitate him perfectly. The narrator has nightmares about his loss of identity.

The weapon is completed in time for a siege on Edirne, with the goal of a taking a the titular white castle, the castle Doppio.

The narrator learns from a distance that the weapon has not only failed, but that the Poles that they were attacking have obtained reinforcements from Kazakhstan, Hungary, and Austria.

Fearing for his life, Hoja abandons the narrator and vanishes. The narrator goes into hiding as well.

The book closes with the narrator, now in his seventies, talking about his life after the failure at Edirne.

He is married, with children, and has done quite well financially while he worked as royal astrologer, though he resigned his post before the intrigue got him killed.

He has accepted that travelers that he sees are not coming to see him. He ponders what became of ‘Him’, who’d escaped to Italy.

The story is extremely well written, and carries with it the power of description which was one of my favorite parts of Snow.

Ends

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