On a voyage from Venice to Naples, a twenty-two-year-old Italian is captured by Turkish pirates and brought to Istanbul. THE WHITE CASTLE is a record of his subsequent experiences, recollected almost fifty years later. Still living in Turkey though never converted to Islam, the narrator does not reveal either his name or that of the man to whom a pasha gave him as a slave.
Referred to as “Hoja” (Master), the other man is obsessed with extracting the secrets of Western enlightenment from the Italian, to whom he bears a striking resemblance. While Hoja pursues studies in astronomy, zoology, geography, and psychology with the narrator, he attempts to lure the Turkish sultan away from his reliance on obscurantist advisers. Hoja triumphs over deadly court intrigue to become Imperial Astrologer. He and the narrator construct an elaborate war machine, and, when the sultan goes off to battle against the Poles, they bring their contraption along. After it fails at the siege of Doppio, the “White Castle” of the novel’s title, Hoja mysteriously vanishes.
Spare in incident, THE WHITE CASTLE is a study in the dialectical relationship between Hoja and the narrator. Alter egos and antagonists, they suggest the enigmatic oppositions of East and West, intuition and reason, nature and civilization, mysticism and science, fiction and reality. “Why I Am What I Am,” is the topic Hoja assigns himself and the narrator as they sit down on either side of a table for the bouts of writing he imposes as spiritual discipline. Self-knowledge and knowledge of the Other become identical, and equally elusive.
Contriving a tale to distract the sultan, Hoja and the narrator agree that “the ideal story should begin innocently like a fairy-tale, be frightening like a nightmare in the middle, and conclude sadly like a love story ending in separation.” THE WHITE CASTLE is almost ideal.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. LXXXVII, March 15, 1991, p. 1455.
Choice. XXIX, October, 1991, p. 290.
The Christian Science Monitor. April 12, 1991, p. 13.
Kirkus Reviews. LIX, February 15, 1991, p. 207.
Library Journal. CXVI, February 15, 1991, p. 222.
The New Republic. CCV, September 9, 1991, p. 36.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, May 19, 1991, p. 3.
The New Yorker. LXVII, September 2, 1991, p. 102.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, February 22, 1991, p. 212.
The Times Literary Supplement. October 12, 1990, p. 1087.