Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 20, 2015

The White Castle (1985), by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Victoria Holbrook

The White CastleThe White Castle is a short novella of only 145 pages, but it took me forever to read.  It’s a title from the Faber Firsts collection, celebrating the first novels of such authors as Peter Carey (Bliss), Sylvia Plath (The Bell Jar) and William Golding (Lord of the Flies), and Faber has included it in this collection because it was the first of Pamuk’s novels to be available in English, in 1985.  His first novel was actually Mr. Cevdet and His Sons published in 1982.

I expected to like The White Castle because I’ve read and really liked three of Orhan Pamuk’s novels: Snow, The Museum of Innocence, and Silent House.  But The White Castle, despite its pedigree as winner of the 1990 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, failed to engage me.  I dawdled through it, punctuated by extended frolics with Samurai Sudoku (always a bad sign).

It’s the story of an unnamed Italian scholar who is captured by pirates and sold at a slave auction in Istanbul.  He is acquired by Hoja, a Turkish savant with ambitions to be a Big Deal at court, but the Italian is not treated like a piece of property.  He is not treated as a slave using the tropes with which we are familiar (humiliation, degradation, exploitation and/or brutality); for him, enslavement means the loss of his freedom and an almost visceral longing for home.

Indeed, his life is almost congenial.  Hoja admires European advances in science and engineering, and it is his desire that the Italian should teach him everything he knows.  So their relative positions are inverted, the Italian with his superior knowledge becoming the teacher and the Turk becoming the able pupil, intent on being able to impress the Sultan and gain favour at court.  But the Italian is a man of straw: even though he is very intelligent, he has actually faked being a doctor in order to get preferential treatment in the slave market.  The novella is, of course, an allegory for Turkey’s position in the modern world apropos Europe, and even as his obsession with improving on Western military technology fails risibly, Pamuk’s Hoja rails against ignorance and the fools who sabotage his attempts to modernise the court’s modus operandi away from soothsaying and superstition.  But it is only fair to say that if I hadn’t read Pamuk’s other novels with their themes of Turkish identity and its struggles with modernism, I think I might well have missed the point.

(It is also only fair to say that the erudite review I’ve read at the NY Times has not a word to say about The White Castle being an allegory in this way, so it is more than possible that my interpretation is completely wrong. However, in an interview with The Paris Review, Pamuk himself refers to reworking traditional literary sources including allegory in The Black Book, and that he recognised this cross-cultural national anxiety in The White Castle after he had written the book.  Alas, The Paris Review is touchy about copying any of its content, so if you want to see what Pamuk had to say you will have to visit their site and read the interview, which is rather long.  The reference to allegory is about half way down, and The White Castle below that.)


From the outset we are told that the Italian and the Turk bear resemblance to one another, and the inversion of their power relations hints at the identity crisis which is to come.  The confused state of their relationship is punctuated by bursts of inchoate rage from the frustrated Turk and unspoken arrogance from the Italian, and from time to time both withdraw from one another to lick their wounds.  Hoja, or Hodja, is an honorific meaning master or lord (see Wikipedia) but both characters, who may be one and the same, vacillate between contempt and admiration for one another, complicated by the figure of the Sultan who is only a child at the beginning of the book, a metaphor (I think) for the immaturity of the State by comparison with the advanced democracies of Europe.  (The White Castle was first published in 1985, though not available in translation until 1990).

The sovereign was a sweet, red-cheeked child of a height proportionate to his few years.  He handled the instruments as if they were his toys. Am I thinking now of that time when I wanted to be his peer and friend, or of another time much later, fifteen years later when we met again? I cannot tell; but I felt immediately that I must do him no wrong. (p. 31)

Over time, all societies have suffered, one way or another, in the march towards modernity.  From the closure of the fields to the Industrial Revolution to the unintended results of globalisation and the IT Revolution, there have been winners and losers amid the social upheaval.  But Turkey represents a society trying rapidly to ‘catch up’ without losing what matters, and some of the choices being made are contentious.  Their leaders want to join the European Union but there is resistance to shedding aspects of their culture that are incompatible with modern Europe.  (Signing the protocol on the abolition of capital punishment in 2004, for example, signals essential human rights reforms to comply with becoming a fully fledged democracy,  prerequisite for their campaign to join the EU).  Paraphrasing Pamuk in the same interview at The Paris Review (2/3 down the page) it seems that the cost of some reforms is that they don’t have democratic support.

Pamuk’s decision to employ the Italian as narrator signals, I suspect, his own frustration with Turkey’s ambivalent national identity, caught between tradition and modernity and anxious about finding a place in the modern world without losing its unique culture or provoking the hostility between nationalists and modernists into something worse.  As in Snow, innocuous-seeming objects turn out to be symbols of this struggle: at one point when the Italian and Hoja are working on a clock to synchronise the time of prayer at different mosques, the Italian teaches him about tables.  Suddenly my mind was filled with images from TV docos of middle-eastern families sitting not at tables for a meal, but on cushions on the floor, not out of poverty but from choice, and I realised that the use of the humble table can have a political and cultural significance in some contexts.

When I brought home the piece of furniture I’d had made by a carpenter according to my specifications, Hoja was not pleased. He likened it to a four-legged funeral bier, said it was inauspicious, but later he grew accustomed both to the chairs and the table; he declared that he thought and wrote better this way. (p. 25)

Pamuk mentions the newness of this table several times as if to reinforce the point.

All very interesting, but no, I did not really enjoy this book.  The first chapters are interesting enough, a little like an adventure story – suggesting the nightmare of capture and enslavement and perhaps the possibility of escape.   The middle section, however, loses momentum.  In detailing the conflict between the two and their benign conspiracy to delude the Sultan into adopting modern ideas, their endless arguments about identity become rather self-indulgent and somewhat repetitive.

I replied that I didn’t know why he was what he was, adding that this question was often asked by ‘them’, and asked more and more every day. When I said this I had nothing to support it, no particular theory in mind, nothing at all but a desire to answer his question as he wished, perhaps because I sensed instinctively that he would enjoy the game.  He was surprised.  He eyed me with curiosity, he wanted me to continue; when I remained silent he couldn’t restrain himself, he wanted me to repeat what I’d said: So they ask this question? When he saw me smile in approval he immediately became angry: he wasn’t asking this because he thought ‘they’ asked it, he’d asked it on his own without knowing they did, he couldn’t care less what they did.  Then, in a strange tone he said, ‘It’s as if a voice were singing in my ear.’  This mysterious voice reminded him of his beloved father, he’d heard a voice like that too before he died, but his song had been different. ‘ Mine keeps singing the same refrain,’ he said, and seeming a bit embarrassed, added suddenly, ‘I am what I am, I am what I am, ah!’ (p. 49)

The rupture that comes in the concluding attempt to reach the unattainable, i.e. the white castle, is both poignant and intentionally confusing…

Author: Orhan Pamuk
Title: The White Castle
Translated from the Turkish by Victoria Holbrook
Publisher: Faber & Faber, 1991, first published 1985
ISBN: 9780571244775
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond


Fishpond: The White Castle
Probably not available at your local bookshop.



  1. I’s been a long time but I have fond memories of this. Like Name of Red it has more the quality of a fable and really pulls in Pamuk’s first love – art. I have read the majority of his books, give or take, and he is not an author you can count on to repeat himself every time. One of his books, The New Life, really surprised me by being almost Ballardian in style. Oddly surreal. So you never know.


    • LOL I have promised myself not to buy any more of his books until I’ve read My Name is Red, I bought it when it won the prize, and it is embarrassing not to have read it yet!


  2. PS. That is a dreadfully gothic cover!


  3. Interesting Lisa … I must say that I’ve loved his Snow and Istanbul but I COULD NOT get into My name is red. It’s one of the few books I have on my abandoned shelf – the one the I think I might go back to one day but that I somehow suspect I won’t for most of the books on there. I do like the fact, though, that he varies his work. I have a short work of his, about writing, on my Kindle, that I haven’t got to yet.


    • *chuckle* I’ve got a couple of those “temporarily abandoned” books, but mostly I’m pretty ruthless with them – off they go to the OpShop, where hopefully they will find someone to love them even if I don’t…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Fair enough … I probably have 10-15. Many will probably end up at the Lifeline Bookfair here.


  4. A VERY thoughtful, detailed & fair take on a novel you ultimately disliked. Much appreciated, thank you.


  5. I went to Turkey a few years ago and decided I must read Orhan Pamuk. I loved Snow, it was first of his novels I read. Unfortunately from then on all his books went downhill for me. I think Pamuk drags out his writing in novels and this novella, The White Castle.


    • I’d agree that Snow is the best of those I’ve read. And certainly the other two almost qualify as chunksters. I still can’t believe that it took me a week to read a book of less than 150 pages…


  6. Love this! I haven’t gotten to this one yet, but thanks for the review! Love Pamuk. If you’re ever interested in some sweet book reviews and musings, be sure to follow! Thanks!!!


    • Hello James, thanks for visiting. I like your choice of books and I’m sure I’ll be visiting often. Are you on GoodReads? I find that’s the best place to find reviews of particular books…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I am! Feel free to check out “James Neenan” However, all reviews are posted to my site on wordpress.


  7. Outstanding commentary on this novel Lisa.

    I have not read Pamuk but he sounds like an author that I would like.

    As you describe them the ideas presented in this book sound interesting to me. I tend to like books that combine political and human themes.

    With that I think that when I get around to reading Pamuk I will likely start with a different work.


    • Thank you, Brian:)
      I like that combination too, I don’t understand people who say they’re not interested in politics.


  8. Ha! An in depth review of a book that failed to move you so thank you. I’ve read other Pamuk books, not this one. Like you, I want to read My Name is Red.


    • Hello KInna, how nice to have you drop by! I have missed you:)


      • Thank you. I have missed you too. Slowly sneaking back to blogging.


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