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By Orhan Pamuk
Translated from the Turkish by Victoria Holbrook
New York: Vintage International, 1990
ISBN: 0-375-70161-3
161 pages

Bob Corbett
January 2015

The novel is a frame story. Turkish researcher, Faruk Daruinogle claims to have found a 17th century manuscript in a remote library in Istanbul and to have stolen it. Now he presents a sort of transposed version to us. The reader is led to believe this is a diary of actual events.

In the opening pages a 17th century ship out of Venice is attacked by a Turkish fleet and captured. The narrator and main figure is among the captured. He is fairly learned and pretends to be a doctor thinking that in this way he might be more useful to the Turks than other laborers and thus increase his chances of survival.

He is taken to Istanbul (and uses that name of the city throughout the novel) and is introduced to the pasha. He is found useful for his many intellectual skills including the ability to heal many conditions, and, while remaining a prisoner he learns Turkish.

Soon his skills are widely used and the pasha gives him as a slave to Hoja (master) a Turk who looks exactly like the narrator, but Hoja prefers not to acknowledge this similarity of looks at all. However, to others the two look so much alike they have a hard time telling them apart. Were the narrator to convert to Islam he would have been given his freedom, but he refuses, not so much on religious grounds, but seemingly just stubbornness and caution.

Hoja and his new slave live together and work together. Hoja is very bright and very much wanting to learn all he can from his slave. However, Hoja has his intellectual limits and hang ups, and is completely convinced there is a planet somewhere between earth and the moon, which is not visible to them.

Some years pass and there is a new sultan (king) who is only 9 years old. The two men are instructed to visit him and teach him and they amuse him and all other citizens of Istanbul with “magical” fireworks.

When the two men were writing together the narrator had been a slave for 11 years and each had learned a lot about the other, which sort of suggests, given their seemingly nearly identical looks that somewhere along the story some sort of switch is to happen, but there are no hints as to whom this will happen.

The plague comes to Istanbul and Hoja gets a bite on his chest. The question that dominates their lives is: is this just an insect bit or is this the plague? Within this discussion are many allusions to just how much the two of them look alike. I’ve been wondering for many pages: If something happened to the Turk, could the European just switch places with him? Given how they’ve travelled together to every place they’ve gone in the past 12 or so years, certainly his slave could just switch clothes and try to change identities.

The narrator finally can take his captive state no longer so he runs away, thinking he can elude capture indefinitely, but he is wrong and is soon captured and taken back to Hoja. They seem to simply continue on as they had before he had fled.

They begin to be less scholarly as time goes on and seek to gain power by saying they can tell when the plague will end. They actually do a decent job of it with real scientific clues, but tell a fraudulent story of how they know. Hoja then gets boosted up to a high power and advisor to the Sultan by the ruse.

6 more years pass and the young leader, now in his late 20s, wants the miracle weapon that Hoja has been promising. The Sultan likes the narrator better than he likes Hoja. Hoja won’t even go to the palace any longer, but hibernates at home, working on his war machine.

The narrator goes to the palace daily, alone for four years. He and the Sultan become good friends.

Eventually, in a battle in Turkey, Hoja dresses up as his slave, a former Italian, and flees, leaving all to think that the narrator himself has fled. The narrator then takes the place of Hoja. Thus finally my expectation of a “switch” of identities has come about.

Many years later we learn he had become the imperial astrologer, married and had four children, and there have often been people who believe the truth, that he isn’t Hoja at all, but the Italian, now as Hoja, has changed roles and personhood.

Finally, one “reader” of the writings of the narrator, begins to penetrate the fiction, and so the narrator allows this person to read this story he’s written of their lives (this novel itself). However, is it fiction or is it real? The question isn’t solved.

The novel was fascinating to read for several reasons, not the least of them being that it is well-written. However, the constant insistence on just how much the two men look alike would lead almost any reader to assume that somehow, somewhere along the line there was going to be a switch of identities. Since the narrator of the story is the slave, and has tried to run away a few times, there was a tendency on the part of this reader to suspect the narrator, the slave, would at some point take Hoja’s identify and freedom to move about and travel as a means to escape. On the other hand, after so many years go by, and as the novel nears its end I began to figure that there would not be such a “switch” and that that clue was just a part of the novel’s intrigue to make the reader believe there would be a “switching of identities.”

It’s a well-written, even gripping novel of great imagination and a marvelous creation of a fictional “Istanbul” some 400 years ago.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett