Orhan Pamuk’s The White Castle explores the ambivalent slave-master relationship, the power of knowledge, as well as the modernization, or the failure to modernize, of the Ottoman Empire. Set in 17th century Istanbul, the novel tells the misfortunes of a young Italian scholar, who en route from Venice to Naples, was captured by Turkish pirates and brought to Istanbul. Shortly afterwards, he was sold as a slave to an erudite scholar, known as Hoca (master), a man with whom he shares an uncanny physical resemblance. The slave was later ordered to instruct Hoca in Western science and technology, from medicine to astronomy.
The dynamic of the slave-master relationship indeed unfolds throughout the novel. Hoca ridicules the slave’s sins of his upbringing, and for his weakness and paranoia, trying to assume superiority over him. Yet, he eagerly tries to learn as much knowledge from him. As the years pass, the two have told each everything of themselves that they have become indistinguishable in thought and appearance. Thus, their slave-master dynamic deteriorates as they both realize that they could switch identities, with each alternating domination.
[Sunday 3rd October 2020, Durham]