The White Castle – Pamuk’s start as a post-modern novelist
The White Castle is set in medieval times. A Venetian sailor is captured by the Turkish pirates and is forced to convert to Islam. But he refuses to do so. He then is given as a personal servant to the emperor and is employed with the royal scholar Hoja, who is an exact physical resemblance of the narrator.
Hoja tries to learn everything from the narrator, and slowly the mutual exchange of ideas makes them resemble each other more and more, until at last the reader absolutely cannot make any distinction between them. They are ordered to build a war machine to siege the white castle in the Carpathians, which they do but ultimately the machine fails and the only meaningful thing they do all this while is to know each other. At last the narrator returns to Italy, but the reader is not entirely sure whether it was really him or Hoja who returned. The White Castle is an attempt, rather a hope of making the West and the Middle-East meet. Pamuk sees the West as too inner-directed and the Middle-East as too outer-directed.
Those who are familiar with Buddhism and Hinduism will know that the meaning of being inner-directed is entirely different from what the West means by it. For the West it means intensive individualism. For the East, it is a journey of self-exploration by meditation.
So in The White Castle, the inner-directedness of the West means individualism at its best, and the outer-directedness of the Middle-east means materialistic totalitarian society, like that of the Ottoman times. Pamuk hopes that these two ends can meet.
A brief look at the nature of Islam and Christianity makes it hard for us to believe that they indeed can meet. Both of these religions are the extreme forms of monotheism, bent upon world conquest through sword. Being extremely exclusivist they do not tolerate any difference, any idea of ‘the others’. Their followers meet only when their authority is slackened by local restraints, and as soon as it is again possible to oppose, they do. Even then, only the followers meet, not the respective religions.
The White Castle is to be enjoyed for its style. Observer says about Pamuk, ‘Up there with the best of Calvino, Eco, Borges and Marquez’. This is very true about The White Castle. If you are prepared to delve into the late medieval times and the Ottoman alleys with a magical, exotic touch, then this is the book for you. Though this art form will be developed more thoroughly by Pamuk in his later book, My Name is Red, the reader will not be disappointed in this work.