The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   49

The White Castle

by Orhan Pamuk

Trans. from the Turkish Beyaz Kale by Victoria Holbrook

NY: Vintage, 1998
The White Castle is a short, dialogue-free novel about modernization and its ironies. The narrator is a young Venetian scholar and engineer who, sometime in the early 17th century, is captured by the Turks and taken to Istanbul, where he becomes the slave of an extremely minor Turkish courtier called Hoja (``teacher'' or ``master''). Hoja is obsessed with restoring the superiority of the Ottoman Empire over the Europeans by mastering their science; he is also our unnamed narrator's exact physical double. Hoja forces the narrator to teach him science --- which he does, starting with the true, i.e. the Ptolemaic, astronomy. (This is part of the whole ironies-of-modernization schtick, but surely Hoja could have obtained a good Arabic copy of the Almagest easily enough.) From there they proceed to the construction of orreries, musings on weapons on mass destruction, fireworks for the infant Sultan, and the head-games and mutual moral abuse which occupy the core of the novel. This is compelling reading, but unpleasant nonetheless, and the arrival of the plague, which is, perhaps, halted by public health measures instituted by the narrator and Hoja comes as a relief, the piles of dead bodies lightening the atmosphere immeasurably. There follows a set piece on the decadence of courts, and finally an opportunity for Hoja to put his ideas into practice, in the form of a weapon to be employed against the Poles, and the eponymous White Castle. It is hardly a spoiler to say that it proves a dismal failure, provoking reverses in fortune all around.

I didn't enjoy The White Castle very much, but that was because Pamuk succeeded all too well in evoking the miasma of frustration, delay, claustrophobia, irrelevance and futility in which his characters live and move and have their being. It is, indeed, extremely good at what it sets out to do, and simply ignores what is beside its task. (Hence one gets absolutely no feel at all for Istanbul, despite its being one of the most tempting locales in the world for a writer of fiction to exploit.) Hoja and the narrator spend a lot of their time trying to get inside each others heads and/or drive each other crazy and/or exchange places, which is supposed to complement the East-meets-West theme, but the mind-games are so much more vivid than the latter that they completely overpower it. This is perhaps just as well, since the whole ironies of modernization business is much too facile, and leaves out the fact that, in the long run, Hoja was absolutely right: the Ottomans lost first superiority over and then equality to the Europeans because they did not master or match the Europeans in their new sciences and practical techniques; Pamuk would have had a very different story had the narrator been the pupil of Prof. Galilei of Padua. Still, the head-games left a sour taste in my mouth. (The White Castle displays nothing resembling a sense of humor, and next to no descriptions of nature, which makes me wonder what the blurb-writers who compared Pamuk to Italo Calvino were smoking.) Pamuk actually compelled me to keep reading, despite my distaste, which is accomplishment enough that I will certainly read any of his other novels that come my way.

161 pp.
Fiction / Historical Fiction / Islam and the Islamic World
Currently in print as a paperback, US$12, ISBN 0-375-70161-3. First published in the United States, NY: George Braziller, 1991; in English, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1990; as Beyaz Kale, Istanbul: Can Yayin Lari, 1985.
16 August 1998, slightly revised 25 August 1998