A novel by Orhan Pamuk
In this ultimate travellers tale, an Italian scholar is taken prisoner and enslaved by the Ottoman empire. When the slave, the narrator, first meets his master, Hoja, he is struck by the resemblance they both have, both physically and mentally.
Hoja is a fellow academic who wants to know everything the young Italian scholar knows. He seeks grandeur and acceptance by those ‘damn fools’. The slave penetrates through the mind of his master and silently taunts him for all his little flaws. The master becomes angry and frustrated until he gains his superiority and beats the slave at his game. The story is a playful tackle between these two minds.
The master one day asks the slave – ‘why I am what I am?’ – the master becomes obsessed with this question and seeks it out all the way to the end. Meanwhile, the slave misses his life in Italy and as the years pass by, he struggles to remember all the details. What part of his former life is actually real? “His sister’s stutter” he recalls as being quite real. There are the facts.
The slave is overwhelmed and comes to believe “his mother is probably dead by now and fiancé has found another”. He understand that he will never be free and has a reoccurring nightmare that his dopple-ganger master will go back to Italy to live there in his stead.
Their lives become so fused, two brothers, the Pasha can’t tell them apart. The slave always remaining righteous as he narrates his story and the master superficial and full of flaws. Sometimes the slave knows himself and is in control and at other times, he is at his masters mercy. Who is the master and who is the slave?
The narrator forewarns us his plans to tell the perfect story – a” funny beginning, terrifying middle and resolution in the end”.
In crescendo style of a tale well told, we, the reader, become so baffled. Did the master go and live in Italy and live out the rest of the slave’s days. Is this just a classic story where two travellers swap lives? What makes this genius, is that the reader is just as much part of the book, equally stumped by who is who – who ever actually narrated this tale to us?
And so what of this resolution at the end that the perfect story promises. If this was a movie directed by J.G Salinger, it may be concluded that the master and the slave are both just one person. Is it schizophrenia and the White Castle is an institution? There is a morbid reference at the end of looking out of a window at a swinging branch. But I think this is just the perfect tale accompanied by a moral end – the master and the slave are the conflicts we have with ourselves – our rational and our irrational superficial selves. This is a battle with our own minds – out delusions, ambitions, fears and hopes. And of course there are the facts. His “sister did have a stutter”.
So what is the white castle? A beautiful fortress we have built against the others, it is beautiful but it is an enclosure.
His hateful resentment for Hoja, turns into love and when they are no longer together, the slave remembers with painful nostalgia the days they spent together.
In the end the story is just the classic story of two travellers swapping lives…it is a whole lifetime lived lived in the enclosure of your mind … it’s also the story you choose to tell….