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.