I finished this book last night. Since this was my first taste of Orhan Pamuk, I’m not sure how it stacks up to the rest of his work. I will say that I liked the book and I do plan to reread it.
Going in, I expected a book that dealt overtly with the issues of identity, East vs West, and the slave-master relationship. All of these issues were indeed covered, but the treatment was subtle. Pamuk, rather than beating us over the head with his “message”, really let the philosophizing recede into the background. Only in the last chapter were the themes really discussed in an overt fashion.
The story is ostensibly a text composed in the early 17th century and found in the 1980s. The narrator, a Venetian slave in Instanbul, is captured and eventually given to a Turkish philosopher who happens to look exactly like himThe two collaborate on “projects” for the Sultan, into whose favor Hoja, the Turkish philospher, desperately seeks to fall. As the years pass, the two become more and more alike. A crisis finally causes them to trade places… or do they?
A few thoughts:
- The concept of “science” in the book is ambiguous and is at times almost a bogeyman. It was invoked almost as a deity at times, and I thought that the awe with which Hoja regarded “western knowledge” was a neat trick. Pamuk seems to be saying that in the East, new and potentially powerful knowledge replaces “God” as a concept. In the West, the argument can be made that “God” has become just another Cartesian category that some are concerned with and others are not.
- The relationship between the two men was odd. They were not friends, and yet the slave-master relationship was not totally present either. Hoja’s interrogation of the Venetian (it is odd that I cannot recall his name…was it even given?) read like introspection. When the time came for the two to “switch”, I found myself thinking that it was unnecessary. Maybe I was reading it too literally…
- The “switch” itself recalled Borges… it was not a change of identity, but Hoja took the Italian’s past and the Italian (the name thing is really bothering me) took Hoja’s future. That added a dimension of uncertainty. Was the change real?
- The final chapter was certainly the strongest of the book. While John Updike (the windbag) writes in a blurb that Pamuk’s “intelligence and introspection suggest Proust”, I am more inclined to compare the book’s themes to Borges. But then again I was never able to slog through Proust, so John Updike might be right. This last thought was pointless.
I recommend the book, but “My Name Is Red” by the same author seems like the better place to start. Writing this makes me think that I need to reread the book to really get a handle on it.