Orham Pamuk, The White Castle

I need to keep better notes and I’ll tell you why – this book has been on my ‘must read’ shelf for quite some time. It’s been gathering cyber dust there on that virtual shelf in the labyrinthine brain of my iPad/Kindle/PC/Macbook Air. And now that I’ve read it, I can’t for the life of me remember what it was that led me to want to read it so desperately that I chose it over the other countless books idling away in that space… It could be that I was intrigued to read Pamuk’s work or that it was this particular book that stood out because of a review that I encountered somewhere or perhaps it was just a recommendation from someone … I am confounded.

And the interesting thing is that this book was such a combination of other books and authors that I don’t quite know what to make of it. In Pamuk’s The White Castle I read Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Zafon’s Prince of Mist and at times even a bit of Shakespeare!

There is no doubt that Pamuk has a gift for telling stories – a story teller with gumption says the NYTimes! That much is plainly clear in this wondrous tale. And, I have been to Turkey, to Istanbul and further a field, to Kas, to Seljuk, to Antalya and Pamuk’s writing smells like Turkey. (I’m not sure if that metaphor will make sense to anyone … ) Perhaps it is just how the place resonates through its density; and this novel is indeed as dense as the place that it describes.

The first clue for readers is Pamuk’s epilogue:

“To imagine that a person who intrigues us has access to a way of life unknown and all the more attractive for its mystery, to believe that we will begin to live only through the love of that person – what else is this but the birth of great passion?”

– Marcel Proust, from the mistranslation of Y.K. Karaosmanoglu

And on so many levels, this is the esse of Pamuk’s novel: passion, intrigue, knowledge, power and submission (ironically, all of it mistranslated to mean something else entirely!) All of these themes set against the rich backdrop of Turkey. The novel opens at sea and we are introduced to an Italian intellectual who is sailing on a ship that has just been captured by the Turkish fleet. Claiming to be knowledgeable in astronomy and other things, the man is saved from certain death and from hard labour, and he eventually comes to work for Hoja, his Turkish counterpart.

With the benefit of hindsight (this book shifts tenses like a firework display shifts colours), our protagonist spins a tale of recollection:

“Once in a while I still see in my dreams that person who used to be me, or who I know believe was me, and wake up drenched in sweat. This person who brings to mind now the faded colours, the dream-like shades of those lands that never were, the animals that never exists, the incredible weapons we later invented year after year, was twenty-three years old then, had studied ‘science and art’ in Florence and Venice, believed he knew something of astronomy, mathematics, physics, painting. Of course he was conceited: having devoured most of what had been accomplished before his time, he turned up his nose at it all; he had no doubt he’d do better; he had no equal; he knew he was more intelligent and creative than anyone else. In short, he was an average youth. It pains me to think, when I have to invent a past for myself, that this youth who talked with his beloved about his passions, his plans, about the world and science, who found it natural that his fiancée adored him, was actually me. But I comfort myself with the thought that one day a few people will patiently read to the end what I write here and understand that I was not that youth. And perhaps those patient readers will think, as I do now, that the story of that youth who let go of his life while reading his precious books continued from where it broke off.”

But we as readers are baffled. There is so much detail of the city, Istanbul in its glory, the Sultan, ships sailing with banners hoisted on every mast, so much vibrancy that at times it was easy to lose the thread of the narrative and in reviewing the book now for this review I find myself delighting in tiny details that had previously drowned in all the fanfare. And yet, I loved the fanfare. I loved the scent of Turkey in the 17th Century and of characters who were so foreign, yet simultaneously so familiar.

But this story is about more than just the colour and  glory of Turkey. It’s about the self, about identity, mirrors, reflections and how easy it is to slip into the skin of another person, to lie to one’s self about doing it and to remake one’s life with a different hue. Says our protagonist (whichever one he is): “I suppose that to see everything as connected with everything else is the addiction of our time.”

I could quote massive chunks of this novel because the prose is so delicious. I’m not going to, I am loathe to spoil a good story! And for those of you who are intrigued and like to remain so, I rather recommend Pamuk’s writing. I enjoyed the experience of reading this book, I savoured much of it. But at times I wanted more of the story to be in the foreground, rather than buried in the background somewhere. I wanted to drown more wholly in this telling and for some reason I didn’t, I was held at bay by some mysterious force which I cannot name. There are so many positive elements to this tale but I expect I was assuming to be blown away and when I wasn’t I was left feeling a bit hollow.

A tough one to review, mainly because of my own assumptions (read ass.you.me). Don’t let my hollowness spoil your read and do report back with your thoughts (not you Tommy, I don’t think this is your cup of tea – or of whisky).

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