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Orhan Pamuk: Beyaz Kale (The White Castle)

Pamuk’s first book to be translated into English is set in 17th century Istanbul. It uses a standard framing technique. The author has allegedly found a manuscript buried in an official archive and is merely transcribing it into modern language for our benefit. The manuscript is written by a Venetian man who is captured by the Turks and taken to Istanbul. He is thrown into prison but, by pretending to be a doctor and even healing a few people, he manages to earn a bit of money and uses the money to get Turkish lessons. His reputation reaches the pasha and he is able to cure the pasha’s shortness of breath. The pasha protects him and occasionally uses his services. However, much of the book is devoted to his relationship with a man who works for the pasha, whom the pasha called Hoja, meaning master. Our narrator is shocked when he first meets Hoja, not least because they closely resemble one another (you know that this is going to be a key plot factor later on). More particularly, Hoja is a scientist and he (with the support of the pasha) is eager to learn of Western science from the Venetian.

Their first tasks is to develop some fireworks for a display the pasha is putting on. Soon the pair are working together on a variety of projects, each one making his own contribution to the task at hand, varying from the fireworks to astronomy to the flow of the Bosphorus to curing the plague that has infected the city. While they are engaging in their scientific experiments, some on the orders of the pasha or other officials, others just for scientific curiosity, we learn about political developments in Istanbul. Officials come and go. The Turks win battles against various Western powers (and lose a few). In particularly, we follow the rise of Mehmed IV (though he is never named), from a boy sultan up to the siege of Vienna. Mehmed is particularly interested in science and calls on first Hoja and then the narrator to advise him and tell him about scientific matters which include, most importantly, the interpretation of dreams. The narrator’s near-execution for failure to convert to Islam, his later attempted escape to avoid the plague (and how he helps cure the plague) and the development of a frightful weapon of war (it is never clear exactly what it is) are just some of the adventures. They come to a head when the war weapon gets stuck on the boggy roads of Poland, as the Sultan advances on Doppio Castle, the White Castle. Doppio is, of course, the Italian for double and it is at the end that we learn what this means, particularly as regards the similar appearance of Hoja and the narrator.

Pamuk’s narration is always skilful, contrasting the Western and the Turkish way of doing things, particularly as regards science and technology, but also telling an excellent story of Turkey and Turkish ways as seen from a Western perspective, as written by a Turk. Questions of identity, freedom, scientific inquiry and political authority are addressed from a more Eastern perspective but yet completely integrated into the story. Though he would go on to write better, this is a fine first novel to appear in English.

Publishing history

First published in 1985 by Can Yayınları
First English translation 1991 by Braziller
Translated by Victoria Holbrook