Saturday, July 14, 2007

The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk

I really wanted to love this novel. Pamuk is regarded as the most interesting writer to come out of Turkey in the last century; he even won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006 for his novel My Name is Red.

I’ve been reading My Name is Red, and it is a fascinating piece of worldcrafting, on par with (though more subdued than) Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Unfortunately, The White Castle, an earlier effort by Pamuk is not up to the same standards.

In brief: In a found manuscript, we read the tale of a young scholar of Venice who is captured by the Turks in the seventeenth century. He is enslaved and moved to Istanbul. But because of his keen intellect and his knowledge of medicine and science, he becomes the personal property of a Turk named Hoja, with whom he shares a remarkable physical resemblance. The two work together on problems of pseudo-science and philosophy which obsess Hoja. Eventually, they switch places and one “becomes” the other. The end.

We get a lot of byplay about the nature of self and the relationship between the east and the west during the time period. But the doppelganger story seems to have been so thoroughly mined already by everyone from Hesse to Wilde, that it’s hard to see what’s new here. (Besides, does anyone in the modern world really think about the doppelganger theme anymore?) The details of life in sultanic Istanbul at this time period are interesting, but they are so secondary to the story that we only barely get the flavor. And the end of the piece simply fizzles out in a confusing welter of events which leave me at least with no real take-home-lesson.

I feel embarrassed to suggest that I was bored by the world of a Nobel Prize Winner, but I was. This is a book which is not particularly interesting, and in which you keep waiting for some fine philosophical point to be raised. When no pearl of wisdom ever materializes, I felt let down.

However, My Name is Red is much, much finer (also much, much longer) so I intend to continue exploring to find out more about Mr. Pamuk, his culture, and his philosophy.

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