Concrete Island (1974) by J.G. Ballard




Concrete Island is a twisted spinoff of Robinson Crusoe that takes place in an almost unbelievably secluded, barren, fenced-off concrete area in the middle of a motorway intersection. The short, episodic novel vividly traces the diminishing humanity of the architect Maitland whose car skidded off the highway into the concrete island. He is compelled to brutalize himself to conquer nature’s elements and two manipulative social outcasts with violent tendencies.

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The character of the “civilized primitive” recurs (as in High Rise) and so is the architect figure. This time, Maitland is the victim of modern megastructure projects that created the strange landscape of unending highway networks that forbid any human interaction. Maitland’s inability to seek help from the thousands of drivers whirring past him in their speeding cars defies principles of mobility and connectivity that underlie the structural framework of utopian visions of urban planning. The cold, unrelenting hardness of the concrete material and the unending maze of roads instill in its users mind-numbing loneliness.

The ending remains curious: why did Maitland stay on? Is it due to inertia? Or is he an escapist who is all too willing to shed his domesticity and respectability? (Maitland is an overworked adulterer with children) Or does he relish his newfound sense of mastery over the island and the other two marginalized members of society, which released the demons of his inner authoritarian bully? Ballard seems to suggest all three are possible and we could have easily become Maitland too.


High Rise (1975) by J.G. Ballard




High Rise is a thinly veiled allegory of the unleashed psychopathology of the professional middle class. Set in a newly developed all-in-one residential high-rise that became popular in metropolitan areas since the late 1960s, the novel traces the physical demise and denigration of the seemingly invincible building-machine that culminates into the apocalyptic vision of its inhabitants descending into shameful feudalism and tribal warfare.

The floor number corresponds to the ranks in a rigidly stratified class hierarchy, perhaps reflecting the reversal to social conservatism after the brief respite from class snobbery in post-WW2 England. The target that comes under the most venomous attack by Ballard is the professional middle-class (doctors, bankers). Their complacent docility, impassiveness, apathy and smugness explain why they are easily pacified by the half-hearted invitation extended by the upper-middle class (celebrities, entrepreneurs) to join the “club” against the lower middle class (which ironically includes the creative middle class such as journalists, writers and TV producers, a class to which Ballard promptly belongs). The war between residents of different floors/class subdivisions erupts after the petty bickering over abrupt power cuts and noise control, common enough nuisances in apartment blocks today, which is what makes Ballard’s tale all the more scarily prescient.

The “proletariat” uprising that includes “militant” strategies of graffiti sprawls and vandalism by the lower middle-class against the bourgeois of the upper levels soon turns the building into a feudalist stronghold. The professional middle class rallies behind Royal, the architect behind the failed utopian project of the self-contained, self-sustaining apartment block. The architect is scavenging respect after the breakdown of the building’s infrastructure by turning himself into a mystified, fearful demigod creator, bringing to mind William Blake’s portrayal of the Christian God as a master builder.


The feudalist order dwindles further into tribalism, suggesting the devolution of human society that goes against teleology and master narratives of linear progress. The residents split into clans that operate along the law of the jungle, metaphorically at first and startlingly literal as they engage in incest, slaughter their own pets and live in ramshackle caves inside derelict apartments. Their verbal faculties also diminishes as their language becomes coarser day after day. The picture of middle-class professionals dispelling decorum and propriety and the priced notion of “keeping up appearances” is a recurring motif in Ballard’s oeuvre.

The physical, architectural structure of the building directly reflects and impacts the interior, psychological landscape of the individuals living there: the confined, fortressed building creates paranoid isolation; the compact, self-sustaining community block with schools, recreational facilities and shopping arcades all boxed in leads to suffocating imprisonment; the stylish glass panels and open balconies encourages mutual surveillance; identical units reflects the restrictive homogeneity that outlaws individuality and personal expression, and walled in privacy is conditional for previously morally questionable acts to occur. One is reminded of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation in Marseilles and the numerous council housing copycats poorly managed that ended up as slums. Ballard even compares the high-rise to a human body with the intricate wires as the network of blood veins and the machines that run the building to organs.


By the end of the novel, we find Laing, the once respectable medicine professor now living like a caveman with his sister and female neighbor in a twisted domestic arrangement and chewing on a roasted pet dog. A overlooming dread descends when an identical high-rise block is welcoming the first stream of inhabitants on the opposite side of the road. The psychopathology ingrained in dense, crammed, soaring high-rises has become commonplace today, especially in cities like Hong Kong marked by an extremely high urban population density and astronomical property prices. This inhuman, harrowing, reluctantly sublime landscape is best summed up by Michael Wolf’s photographic work which makes what’s happening behind the uncountable aluminum window frames unimaginable.


The New Life (1994) by Orhan Pamuk


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The New Life is an intricate hybrid of a Borgesian labyrinth, road trip novel and detective story that unravels “the meaning of everything from life to the book, time, writing”. As the second novel by Orhan Pamuk, The New Life contains recurring motifs in the author’s oeuvre, including the ambiguous relationship of the Orient (represented by Turkey) and the West; the nature of reading and writing; the novel form; objects and materialism; memory, collecting and museum practices, and copy and authenticity.

Centered on the narrator Osman who embarks on a journey to start a new life after the metaphysical experience (comparable to religious conversion) of reading a banned text bearing the same name as Pamuk’s work, this novel is a nuanced commentary on the ambivalence towards Western cultural influences in Turkey and on a broader context, the embrace and resistance of an integration with the Occident. The dominant image of the book and mystical descriptions of the transformative act of reading are interspersed with self-reflexive tricks that challenge the established notions of a static authorship and passive reader reception.

The conflicts in the story arise from debates on the origins and nature of the novel, a decidedly Western import. Cultural fundamentalists led by the paternal evil genius Doctor Fine, the mastermind behind a terrorist group of despondent shopkeepers against the “Great Conspiracy” of Western objects, see “this newfangled plaything called the novel, which is the greatest invention of the West” as “none of [their] culture’s business”. The novel is no longer simply a literary genre but is perceived as an embodiment of a Western way of seeing the world that may taint the younger generation, along with local soap operas and films crudely modelled on Hollywood blockbusters and an influx of an American diet featuring Coca-Cola and colorful candy pops. Doctor Fine and his followers struggle “against the book, against foreign cultures that annihilate us, against the newfangled stuff that comes from the West. He even launches an  “all-out battle against printed matter…to stop the betrayal of life and the book”. The suppression of a particular type of literature that conflicts with the seemingly laudable agenda of cultural conservation inevitably brings to mind Pamuk’s later encounters with Islamic fundamentalists in his home country who taunted the writer supportive of Western liberalization with censorship and death threats. To Doctor Fine, “the Great Conspirator was a man named Gutenberg, known to be a printer and emulated by many, who reproduced words in a manner that outstripped the production of the industrious hand, the patient finger, the fastidious pen; and words, words, words broke loose like a strand of beads and scattered far and yonder”. The quick and widespread dissemination of ideas and thoughts that challenge established traditions is made possible by the printing press and the easy reproduction of texts, blurring the boundary between the authentic marked by the hand of the artist and the less valuable copy. The rhetoric of tradition can be abused and distorted into a blanketing hostility towards the potentially subversive creative act of writing and reading literature. Doctor Fine’s paranoid view that “Literature as part of the Great Conspiracy, [is] one of the enemies of “the annals of our time, our former existence” sheds light on the obstinate unreasonableness of artistic censorship that persists today.

If a new life is defined as a new way of seeing the world, then the experience of reading a book is able to alter and reinvent one’s life. Even the most ordinary and mundane objects (a book) could impact on the corporeal and spiritual aspects of man. Pamuk radically suggests even objects themselves have a force of life. “Objects had the capacity to remember…the faculty to record what happened to them and preserve their memories”. Throughout the novel, Osman searches for the cryptic “angel” and realize it can be embodied by both a compassionate individual and objects surrounding him every day. The new life turns out to be the ability to see ordinary objects afresh and to be perceptive of the minute changes and variations in the everyday life. Pamuk reverses the convention of the human subject and the passive object by demonstrating how an object can create a new world for its user. As objects have the power of association and memory, the destruction and absence of old objects can lead to the loss of sovereignty over collective memory (“the plague of forgetfulness that blows here from the winds from the West, erasing our collective memory”). Moreover, the author suggests the concept of time is developed through tactile relationships with objects. Objects also shape and form our sense of time-passing and the narrative of our lives. To supporters of traditional Turkish religious and social values, imported Western goods are seen as lackluster prosaic objects that disorient one’s temporal sensibilities and serenity. Even the train timetable is in opposition to the prayer timetable, pitting the commercial against the spiritual. However, the fetish of the old and the commoditized antiquity suffocates one’s imagination by depriving him an expansive worldview. Pamuk offers another reading on the value and importance of objects in the constitution of memories: “Dr. Fine’s mistake…was that of a materialist putting his trust in things, assuming that he could prevent the dissipation of the spirit inherent in objects by preserving them…so many products made use of such words, all fake-light bulbs, ink, what have you”. As Foucault writes in the “Introduction” to The Archaeology of Knowledge, “The document (or documentary materials) is not the fortunate tool of a history that is primarily and fundamentally memory; history is one way in which a society recognizes and develops a mass of documentation with which it is intricably linked…in our time, history is that which transforms documents into monuments…in our time history aspires to the condition of archaeology, to the intrinsic description of the monument”. It is history that grants a particular set of chosen objects a monumental status and systematizes material documentations to formulate a collective memory, instead of relying on objects to outline history and memory. If history is a narrative or a version of ordering events, then it precedes objects and determines what should be remembered and forgotten and the means to do so.


The White Castle (1985) by Orhan Pamuk


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The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk

“The White Castle Afterword” from Other Colors: Essays and a Story by Orhan Pamuk

Set in the seventeenth century Ottoman Empire, The White Castle is a deceptively conventional memoir of a Westerner who spent decades in the imperial capital. A young Italian scholar was captured and brought back to Istanbul when his ship was ambushed by a Turkish fleet. He was first imprisoned and eventually sold on the slave market to a man named Hoja who looked identical to him. In the years that followed, the Italian narrator lived and worked with Hoja in close proximity. Together, they collaborated on a wide array of writing projects and the creation of magnificent inventions propelled by Hoja’s ambition to convert the young sultan to the religion of science and reason. At the same time, they braced themselves against the intrigues and treasonous plots of the xenophobic courtiers who were wary of the pair’s growing influence on the ruler. The White Castle in the title only appeared near the end of the narrative as a magnificent, almost otherworldly fortress that marked the shameful failure of an elaborate and monstrous war machine, Hoja’s magnum opus seen by the Turks as an evil creature that would bring bad luck, when it was embarrassingly stuck in a steep muddy slope during a battle against the Poles. The Italian narrator never saw Hoja again after they fled the capital fearing deadly repercussions after their grand failure.

What appears to be a colorful and exotic quest narrative is in fact a self-reflexive meditation on the ambiguous nature of storytelling and historiography. In “The White Castle Afterword”, Pamuk mentions, “Cervantes, whom I salute in the first and last section of the book” wrote Don Quixote based on a manuscript by the Arab Historian bin Engeli by filling in the gaps of mistranslation with word games, making the plot of the venerated classic a spontaneous and whimsical flow of events. The fluidity of Don Quixote is similar to the slipperiness of The White Castle. As a framed metafictional narrative, the novel is both a reflection and manifestation of notions of (mis)translation and (mis)interpretation, and the oscillation between fact and faction in literary and historical narratives. The epigraph of the novel is a Turkish mistranslation of a quote by Proust about living the life of another as the most intense form of love, posing questions of impersonation and internalization of sameness. The two major preoccupations of the novel: the concept of the double and the nature of narrative are welded seamlessly by the concept of translation, which refers to the expression of the sense of words or a message in another language that entails the possible loss of meaning. Translation is also a process of formal, linguistic or cultural conversion with socio-political and ethical implications. On the outset, readers are told by another unknown narrator that he stumbled across a document that turns out to be the memoir of the Italian scholar in a government archive amid piles of dusty imperial decrees and title deeds, physical remnants of bureaucracy retained to consolidate the validity of a particular account of history. He professes his “mistrust of history” and decides to “concentrate on the story for its own sake”, preferring the fictional over the self-proclaimed factual. Holding the job title of an encyclopedist, the narrator plans to write an entry on the enslaved Italian scholar, the author of the volume of recollections, under the “history” section. The memoir indefinitely tainted by flawed memory and bias has now become a historical artefact and the Italian narrator, the author/fabricator of the tale is a historian who holds the key to facts of the past.

The act of interpretation that pervades the story ranges from the harmless (Hoja’s creative readings of natural phenomena as portents that feeds the lurid imagination of court members hungry for scandals) and the scheming (Hoja’s scripted and dramatic readings of the sultan’s dreams that convinces the young ruler to grant imperial decrees favorable to the promotion of science and technology). Hoja’s contradictory role as an imperial astrologer and astronomer suggests the necessary overlapping of empiricism and imagination in scientific and critical inquiry. The reading of the stars is superstition when one traces the pattern and movement of comets and planets to predict future events; it is a scientific investigation when the cosmos is studied and understood as a system determined by the laws of physics.

The relativity of truth behind interpretation extends to the destabilization of boundaries between assumed dichotomies of master and slave and the East and the West. In the “Afterword”, Orhan Pamuk explains the unconventional relationship of a Turkish master and an Italian slave (usually it is the other way round) is inspired by the Hegelian master and slave dialectic. Pamuk goes further by subverting the power dynamics of the seemingly irreconcilable hierarchy. Both parties have something “to tell and teach each other”, making their relationship one of affinity and tension. It is tempting to simplistically equate Hoja to the scientifically backward East suspicious but envious of Western knowledge and the Italian scholar as the West superior in modern knowledge after the baptism of the Enlightenment. In the novel, there are episodes where Hoja tries to acquire the mindset of his Western slave by forcing the partners to scrutinize their memories and commit them on paper. One day Hoja was plagued by the question “Why am I what I am” and even turned it into a musical chant. His brush with Descartes was dismissed by the Italian narrator as a childish attempt at philosophizing while admitting there was a subtle and undefinable change in Hoja after that. The story offers no definite resolution to Hoja’s attempts to adopt the mentality of the Westerner. At most, he mastered some aspects of Western technology through his ambitious inventions of intricate mechanisms such as the prayer clock, the failed war machine, and writings of pseudo-naturalist treatises of fantasized beasts in distant lands.

As if to dispel readers’ preoccupation over the East/West binary latent in the novel, Pamuk explains, “The East and West divide is not the subject of The White Castle”. While the plague in the story reveals the deep divide of the deterministic worldview of the Turks blinded by a fundamentalist interpretation of illness as punishment of sins and the rational, empirical attitude in the treatment of diseases of the West, Pamuk insists the plague is just another convenient plot device conforming to the literary tradition. Yet, Pamuk might be putting on the guise of an earnest writer (re: his Charles Eliot Norton’s lecture series is titled The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist) as the novel is itself a meticulously crafted subversion of literary conventions, from the ambiguous heroism of Hoja who is driven by an egomaniac desire to transform the mentality of his countrymen and a relentless pursuit of scientific knowledge to understand the laws of the universe, to the addition of a further twist of the self-conscious narrative myriad popularized by Cervantes and Tristram Shandy (a novel discussed at length in an essay in Other Colors) in its complex, multi-framed structure.

Pamuk further complicates matters by invoking the literary trope of the double and suggesting the Italian narrator and Hoja are actually “twins” who changed identity and places with each other.  Pamuk’s fascination over the double is evident in his memorable reading experience of works by E.T.A. Hoffman, Poe, Dostoyevsky (especially “The Other”) and a childhood comic book character called Onethousandandonefaces who can assume the identity of anyone by shapeshifting. At this point, Pamuk suggests perhaps the writer is also an uncanny double himself, citing the example of Robert Louis Stevenson who wrote the definitive tale of the double Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and led the life of an ordinary citizen by day and writer by night. Always candid about his solitary, intensive writing ritual that could last for ten hours a day with little interruption in between, Pamuk clearly enjoys the strangely illicit joy of researching and composing novels hidden in view from friends and strangers, although he welcomes brief interludes of camaraderie in tea houses. In real life, the conjurer of this layered story about the discovery of yet another tale leads a double life of the hermetic writer and the active intellectual. He engages in controversial debates on Turkey’s future, arguing for a secular, liberal and Westernized state as opposed to an Islamic government and the country’s entrance into the European Union, which made him a target of death threats.

The novel concludes when an “I”, a now retired imperial astrologer who leads a secluded and peaceful life in Turkey with his family, talks about a “He” who has escaped to Italy after the lost battle at the White Castle. The “I” explains it was after the visit from a travelling historian Evliya Chelebi (a real-life figure whose works Pamuk read in preparation for the writing of this novel) visited him to learn more about Italy as Chelebi heard about his previous ownership of an Italian slave. It was after two weeks of recounting the story of his life to the historian that the “I” decided to write down what he told his visitor, further distancing the tale from the teller. In the “Afterword”, Pamuk writes, “I am still not sure if it was the Italian slave or the Ottoman master who wrote the manuscript of The White Castle”. It is the indeterminable extent of duplicity in the doubles of fact and fiction, history and historiography, master and slave against the backdrop of the crossed destinies of the East and the West that makes the novel as elusive and as concrete as the mirage of the White Castle perched atop a distant mountain.