Orhan Pamuk’s White Castle sets no explicit, overt agenda on its own. Even its preface in the fictional perspective of Faruk, a Turkish historian, states that the story should not be interpreted with any speculation about modern Turkish or East-West politics. Yet, as with all symbolism in the book, it was an intentional and purposeful incorporation. Pamuk likely sought, through the directly-named archetypes presented in the book (Pasha, “Master,” the White Castle, etc.), to prove a point about the centuries-long conflict between East and West, or more specifically between Islam and Christianity. Perhaps his intention was to give an exploration of why the Islamic Empire that grew for an entire millennia had reached its decline to the European powers. Was it caused by the Ottomans to have their own “Enlightenment,” put God aside, and embrace the natural sciences? The narrator’s interactions with the Turkish courtier Hoja, the other Turks, and the events that unfold all seem to support the idea that in the 18th century, an advantage was found by the West, forming a gap never closed by the East.
When Hoja and the slave narrator begin working to develop uses for “Western knowledge,” their attempts are not greeted well by the Turks. Hoja’s opening of a school to share his new findings only arouses the suspicion of the students, and the project fails after Hoja receives implicit threats. Likewise, his attempts to educate the young sultan meet similar failure. Could these problems be an allegory to the rejection in many Islamic communities of modernization in particular parts of economy, society, and government? Indeed, many of the first fundamentalist thinkers in the 20th century disputed whether accepting any tenet of Western thought for the purposes of societal advancement was proper (in the eyes of God?). Also, the master and slave work extensively on developing military weapons, concluding years of work in a massive contraption for a super-weapon, to be used in the siege of the super-fortress White Castle; the weapon gets stuck in mud and the battle ends in catastrophe for the Ottomans. Many historians, such as Bernard Lewis, suggest that the abrupt failure of the Ottomans of the 17th century in their siege of Vienna signaled the sudden decline of Islam as a world power, and Pamuk’s battle for the White Castle may have been aimed at capturing that idea. This may have also had another modern connection to the single greatest Western technology adapted by Islamic states – weaponry – as does their lack of success in using it. During the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars against Israel, the Arab states fielded vast armies of Soviet tanks, artillery, and fighter jets, only to be repulsed by the largely outnumbered, but crafty Israeli U.S.-supplied military. The latter half of the 20th century through the present has been characterized by large military expenditure in nations such as Egypt, Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, accompanying steady poverty and social oppression. Are they suffering from the same syndrome that plagued Hoja and his fellow Turks to a greater degree? It very plausibly explains their failure to keep up to par with Western nations, as a more general subset of the failure to separate strong religious convictions from government and science, and religious convictions definitely suffice in giving a reason why Islam has rejected those tenets of Western thought in the first place.
Pamuk is clearly an outspoken critic of oppressive Turkish government, well-indicated by his infamous accusation of its genocide against the Armenians during WWI (a disputed fact nonetheless). That he would also be a critic of modern Islamic attitudes would not be surprising. White Castle brings the most central part of the East-West conflict- simply, “who is more right about stuff”- under a magnifying glass, showing the stark contrast between knowledge and superstition that has been the foundation of many disputes in countries like Turkey into the present day, from Ataturk against the Caliphate to his descendant’s CHP against the arguably Islamist AK. Its symbols stir some questions about today: was the failure of the Ottomans in the book actually the failure that has persisted in the East for over 300 years? Does the adaptation of what the West experienced as Enlightenment thought need to be whole and complete for Islamic states to ever rise again? Is Israel the modern-day, impregnable White Castle of the Middle East? The solution to the East’s problems may, in one way or another, lie in Pamuk’s work. If nothing else, White Castlegives us some freaky identity-swapping scenarios to talk about.