Up there with the best of Calvino, Eco, Borges and Marquez – Observer

Would that blurb attract you? Calvino I’ve always meant to read.  If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, reportedly a major influence on David Mitchell’s brilliant Cloud Atlas. Eco’s The Name of the Rose a masterpiece but I found Baudelino unfinishable.  The very idea of Borges fills me with dread and Marquez is magnificent when not magically realising.   All of which leaves me pretty ambivalent about that blurb … it wouldn’t have drawn me to reading Pamuk’s 1990 Independent Award for Foreign Fiction winner, The White Castle.

However, a few years ago, I read My Name is Red.  What a difficult read that was!  But  a cracker nonetheless – despite the effusive bad language!  It’s a rare novel that keeps me reading past that but My Name is Red is extraordinary.  An exploration of the differences between East and West with art as the  differentiator.  However, it is a murder mystery, one with many narrators – including the corpse, a painted dog, a coin and all the suspects.  As I said, a difficult read, one to be taken slowly, but one which is very rewarding.  It won the Dublin Impac Award in 2003, the French Prix du meilleur livre étranger and the Italian version the Premio Grinzane Cavour in 2002.   A milestone in contemporary literature, then, a position that will be recognised with the publication of an Everyman’s Library edition in 2010.  And I’ve just discovered that there’s a BBC World Book Club episode here.

Of course,  I’m dissembling. I don’t want to talk about The White Castle because I don’t understand it.  Thank goodness it’s only 145 pages long (actually it felt much longer).  It started well enough.  A young Italian scholar is captured by pirates and sold as a slave in Istanbul.  Eventually he is owned by a Turk who is eager to learn about the scientific and intellectual advances in the West.  So far, so good.  Pamuk has set up  the relationship to explore the theme that fascinates him.  The differences between East and West.

And there ends any sense – either in the novel or my review.  The relationship deteriorates. Both slave and owner resent each other.  They spend hours, days, months, years (?) concocting false histories of their lives.  Outwardly they ressemble each other and at various points in the narrative they swap roles,until eventually the Turk becomes the Italian and escapes back to the West.  Oh dear, was that a spoiler?  Maybe it was, and maybe it wasn’t because  first the Turk or even the Italian has to exist.  And, if one doppelganger is a figment of the other’s imagination, then who knows what happening?  Certainly not me.

Just after finishing this book, when I still cared, the purple beauty on the left dropped through the letter box and with it an interview with Orhan Pamuk …. and a few clues.

Q: What inspired you to write The White Castle?  It’s the first book where you employ a theme that recurs thoroughout the rest of your novels – impersonation. Why do you think this idea of becoming somebody else crops up so often in your fiction?

A:  It’s a very personal thing.  I have a very competitive brother who is only eighteen months older than me.  In a way, he was my father, my Freudian father, so to speak.  It was he who became my alter ego, the representation of authority.  On the other hand we had a competitive and brotherly comradeship.  A very complicated relationship. ..In The White Castle the almost sadomasochistic relationship between the two main characters is based on my relationship with my brother. …

On the other hand, this theme of impersonation is reflected in the fragility Turkey feels when faced with Western culture.  After writing The White Castle I realised that this jealousy – the anxiety about being influence by someone else – resembles Turkey’s position when it looks west.  You know, aspiring to become Westernised and then being accused of not being authentic enough.  Trying to grab the spirit of Europe and then feeling guilty about the imitative drive.  The ups and downs of ths mood are reminiscent of the relationship between competitive brothers.

I’m ever so pleased the author knew what he was writing about.   I only wish he could have done so in a way that this reader understood.  My advice to you – ignore The White Castle.  Pick up My Name is Red instead.  But give yourself lots of time to read it.  It took me a good 3 weeks.

The White Castle  

My Name Is Red 

The Paris Review Interview of Orhan Pamuk