I loved Snow. I loved how Pamuk crafted both a riveting novel of love, espionage and drama, and at the same time was leaping into the breach of trying to explain the West to the East and vice versa. Pamuk was telling a story and seeking to accomplish something intellectually powerful. And I have been trying to get back to that Orhan Pamuk ever since. I’ve read My Name is Red, which is very, very good, but not equal to Snow, and A Strangeness in My Mind, which was sweetly sad and fell totally flat for me.
The White Castle – Pamuk’s first novel – held some promise because of its tantalising, symbolic title (echo of Kafka’s The Castle) and a back cover which hinted at an East-West exchange of knowledge.
And again I was disappointed. Far from a rumination about why the Ottoman Turks failed to modernise, or embrace science, or have a Renaissance of their own, this is more a dreamy tale about mixed identities. It is much, much closer (in terms of thematic preoccupation and writing style) to A Strangeness in My Mind, than My Name is Red or Snow.
The basic plot is that a young man of the Renaissance: Venetian, fairly wealthy, newly educated in the early science, gets captured on Turkish pirates and brought to Istanbul. As an educated man, he is spared from heavy physical labor, and gets noticed by a pasha, or what we would call a Duke or an Earl. While working for the Pasha, he meets a man who physically resembles him in every respect. This man – who like the narrator/main character we never get a real name – is also a learned man interesting in science.
These two main characters ostensibly set out to get the Sultan to embrace “science.” But we never really get to that. This book is about how they are psychologically different and the same. They switch identities at the end; it’s about how little “science” and “progress” have to do with what we really need or want as human beings. In the end, the Turkish army, assisted by the mechanic contraption that our two heroes have devised, fail to take the “white castle,” symbol for something pure, esoteric and good.
In all honestly, I want to blame the translation. Something about the tone; some vague sense of repetitiveness; is this really the author’s intent? Is this some favoured device in Turkish literature? Every time I pick up a book from Russia (like Dostoyevsky) I always wonder if I like or dislike it because of the translation. Keep that in mind.
The subplot of “why didn’t the Ottomans modernise alongside western Europe?” Did provoke my own thoughts on this rather important question. In brief: their strict feudal structure combined with the absolute strictures of Islam. Western Europe, while feudal, did have intellectual and actually existing alternatives to the feudal structure. There where the Italian and Dutch city-states, especially Venice, which operated on republican lines of civic virtue. These where backed by the classical tradition. This means opens up physical and psychological spaces for experimentation. In The White Castle, our heroes compete – along side fools, magicians, clowns, etc – for the attention and favour of the Sultan. One sees how this need to appeal to the Sultan’s personal whims (he enjoys stories about fantastic animals!) essentially turns our heroes into charlatans themselves. They where never that scientific to begin with anyway.
I would very seriously enjoin you to read Pamuk, but his work, at least for me, is very hit-or-miss.