Saturday, June 5, 2021

Review: The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk

I picked up this book because I thought it would be interesting to read some literature from a non-Anglo/Northern European author, and because the audiobook was available from my library. I was caught quite by surprise by the role the plague played in this book - what timing to read it during the coronavirus pandemic. It was a little uncanny to see concerns of social distancing/contagious disease play out, written from the 1980s and set in the 1600s yet read in 2020: people anxiously following social distancing norms, other people decrying the whole thing as a hoax, others frantically trying to trace down all data they could in hopes of understanding the disease, the strange love and resentment that builds from being cooped up so closely with another person, the fear of a second wave, the concerns about economic collapse if the markets are not re-opened...

The White Castle reminded me of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in that it was chiefly about a relationship between two men, that ranges from a hierarchical relationship, to one of collaboration and productive research, to an antagonistic relationship. Jonathan Strange does go through his "candles in heads" phase of madness and The White Castle's Hoja goes through a similar "why am I who I am" search. However what I love so much about Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is the dry sense of humor, the strange fantasy world, and the absurdity of some parts. The White Castle lacked these elements. Further, there are ways I worry I am like Mr Norrell, ways I wish I was more like Jonathan Strange, and parts of Jonathan Strange I see in myself. Except for a drive to understand myself, and an appreciation for science, I didn't really identify with the narrator nor with Hoja. Because the story was so driven by character arcs and so little by plot, I think this diminished my enjoyment of the book.

The question of identity at the end of the book was interesting. I think I like the interpretation better that it was the Italian man that returned to Italy. The actions of the "narrator" work better if carried out by Hoja (and indeed also the actions of the sovereign, who seemed to take great joy in understanding two men as independent and very different people, also suggest as much). It doesn't make sense to me that the Italian man would seek company in a slave.

The pace was meditative, but not tediously slow. It was a relaxing read, if not gripping.

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