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Sunday, January 29, 2006
Orhan Pamuk’s “The White Castle”
I received two books just before New Year’s, both of Turkish authors but translated in English. I was more than curious to read them, as they had been given to me by K’s aunt and because my only encounter with Turkish literature had been a story book that overwhelmed me as a child and gave me good material for a paper in University.

I picked Orhan Pamuk’s to be the first for a simple reason: it was easier to fit in my purse and be read in the airport on my trip back to Bucharest. But it turned out to be quite a coincidence that I’d pick it: it was also a story of Istanbul told by a European.

The main characters of the novel are a Venetian whose name is not mentioned and Hoja, his Turkish look-alike. The young Venetian’s ship is captured by the Turks (the story is from the Ottoman Empire period) and he ends up in a prison in Istanbul. As he had little knowledge of medicine that he could use, he is often called at a Pasha’s castle to help him with his breathing problems.

The Pasha’s home is where he will see Hoja for the first time. He is completely terrified with the fact that this Turkish man looked so much like him, although Hoja does not seem to notice the resemblance.

As the Pasha demands him to become Muslim and decides to have him executed for not wanting to convert, the Venetian is convinced he will die without ever getting back home. Hoja is the one that saves him and takes him into his home as his own slave.

Although very different in way of thinking, at first, they find common things of interest: first the passion for astronomy and then for science in general. Hoja asks of his more educated slave to teach him everything he knows and is very fast in learning. Then develops his own interests: he wants to build a precise clock to tell the exact time for prayer all over the world.

The irony of these two lives together is that the others come to see them as completely influenced by each other. Later, when Hoja will build a terrible weapon for the Sultan – another important character, with a great love for animals and hunting, seen as ignorant by Hoja and as extremely intelligent by the Venetian – everybody would assume the idea was the foreigner’s. Even if he was never around Hoja to help him with his plan and at that time he was more attracted by parties at the Sultan’s palace, he is always regarded as the mastermind behind it all.

Yet the most intense part of the novel is that of the plague that strikes Istanbul. The two men are forced to spend all their time together, finding distractions to make them forget about the terror brought by the plague. They start playing dangerous mind games that often bring pain to them (also physical for the Venetian, as Hoja needs to punish them). This whole period ends with the Venetian running away and being brought home to help Hoja find a way to control and fight the plague.

The strange relationship between the two, instead of making them hate each other, bring them closer, creating an unbreakable bond. They find out all the details of each other’s life becoming part of the other. This metamorphosis is best described by the mime the Sultan brings to impersonate each of them and then show how much of each is actually the other.

Towards the end of the novel they all go to war with the Sultan. Most of the war consists in long travels and hunting excursions as there are no actual fights described. Hoja develops a weird passion: he forces simple peasants to confess his sins, this being one of the games he played with his slave during the plague. But, unless the Venetian who always invented amazing sinful stories, the simpletons only confess petty sins, driving him close to madness.

The moment of glory for their weapon arrives: a white castle in Poland that they could not conquer. The weapon is a failure, it gets stuck in mud, and the castle is never taken. Although they engage in battle, both characters have the same thought: their weapon would remain stuck there…As everybody is holding the Venetian responsible, the two men trade places: Hoja takes over the foreigner’s life and heads to Italy, while the Venetian will continue to play Hoja’s part and return to Istanbul.

In the last part of the novel, no name is mentioned. The foreigner returns to Istanbul, he faces the rumors of their role-change, and tries to forget Him. Only in old age he realized that it is impossible to break their bond and forget Him. They will both remember each other and miss each other as long as they are alive.

I have left out some of the most impressive moments of the book, this is just a brief view of the story. If you ever get your hands on the book, read it, it’s worth your time.

A little about the author:
Orhan Pamuk is the author of seven novels, five of which have been translated into English, and the recipient of major Turkish and international literary awards. His work has been translated in more than twenty languages.
posted by Alina @ 10:19 AM  
  • At 1/29/2006 10:23 PM, Anonymous passionate reader said…

    I'd like to read the other six novels of this great writer! This kind of books have a noticeable contribution to the world culture!...

  • At 1/29/2006 11:20 PM, Blogger Wonderer said…

    I've heard about the author, they say he is a good writer. However, I never read to him. Maybe it is time to start with The White Castle.

  • At 1/30/2006 2:55 AM, Blogger tota said…

    my only encounter with Turkish literature had been a story book that overwhelmed me as a child and gave me good material for a paper in University

    I would like to know what is it ?

  • At 1/30/2006 10:32 AM, Blogger Alina said…

    Passionate reader, I believe any writer has a certain contribution to the world's culture. Unfortunately, we cannot read them all!

    Wonderer, you should read it if you have the time or any other writing of his. From what I've read there's a lot of debate going on over his works and the image of Turkey he presents.

    Tota, it was a collection of folk stories translated into Romanian. I don't know if the book exists as it has been transleted in the Turkish literature, but I will search some data on it and let you know.

  • At 1/30/2006 1:04 PM, Blogger Wonderer said…

    just out of curiousity, is you name Alina or Kayla?:)

  • At 1/30/2006 6:01 PM, Anonymous passionate reader said…

    Oh, yes! You're perfectly right : any writer has a certain contribution to the world's culture! Even the blog writers! Bingo!

  • At 1/30/2006 10:42 PM, Blogger Alina said…

    Wonderer, it's Alina. For further details, please read my post on my one year blog anniversary. Wow then sounds just like tech support replies :))

    Passionate reader, culture also means all material and spiritual values of o certain society during a certain period of, yeah, blogs, folk songs, inscriptions on walls, graffitti, they are all part of our culture. :)

  • At 2/28/2010 10:02 PM, Anonymous Alina said…


    It is interesting how browsing the sites on Orhan Pamuk, I found myself in a blog set up by another Alina :).

    I just wanted to recommend his newest novel - The Museum of Innocence - released in 2009. This book totally blew my mind. It should be read as a sort of remedy by all broken-hearted people who survived love affair disasters without ever knowing the real reason for their failure. I am one of those people, and I found many clues in this amazing book. I couldn't put it down.
    I also want to say that I owe Mr. Pamuk my passion for Istanbul. I practically toured the city with notes from his books in hand.

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Name: Alina
Home: Bucharest, Bucharest, Romania
About Me: "This is my church. This is where I heal my hurts". It's also where I feel free and my preferred means of expression.
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