ALTHOUGH he is not yet 40, Orham Pamuk has emerged as Turkey's leading novelist. Moreover, despite the intimately Turkish nature of his settings and subject, he has come to enjoy an international reputation. Pamuk's books have been translated and issued by many of Europe's prestigious publishing houses. Last year, Carcanet, the trend-sensitive British publisher, sponsored a translation that has just been released in the United States by Braziller. American readers now have the opportunity to become acquainted with the compass of Pamuk's considerable talents through Victoria Holbrook's sensitive translation of this, his third novel.
``The White Castle'' is more experimental than Pamuk's previous volumes. The first and most formidable of them, ``Cevdet Bey and Sons,'' which chronicles the lives of a well-to-do Istanbul family through three generations, has been favorably compared to Thomas Mann's ``Buddenbrooks.'' The scope, rich detail, and social awareness of both novels is all the more extraordinary since both authors were but 26 years old when the books were completed.
The more or less smooth storytelling of ``Cevdet Bey and Sons,'' reminiscent of the 19th-century novel, gives way in Pamuk's second work, ``The Silent House.'' Five narrators recount the action, and the reader is compelled to realize that each of their accounts holds only a slice of a total truth that cannot be fully told. (To date, neither ``Cevdet Bey and Sons'' nor ``The Silent House'' has been translated into English. Pamuk's fourth novel, ``Kara Kitap'' (``The Dark Book''), was publishe d in Turkish last year.
In ``The White Castle,'' Pamuk makes storytelling the subject as well as the means of the novel, and he insinuates a slippery perspective. At the end, to quote literary theorist Roland Batthes, to whom this strategy alludes, we are forced to ask, ``Who is speaking?''
The philosophical complications begin simply enough when an unnamed Italian is captured by Turkish sailors sometime in the 17th century. He manages to save his neck by pretending to a knowledge of medicine.
Eventually he is made a slave, but his apparent ability to heal brings him under the protection of the pasha, who assigns him to Hoja or ``master.'' Hoja, an astrologer, has a mean streak and a quick temper, unlike the Italian narrator.
But physically they are virtual twins. Thus, early in the novel, Pamuk introduces the theme of identity played out on a personal and a national scale. Although this story pulses with plot changes, on an important level the Italian and Hoja are emblems of the East and the West.
The text, ostensibly written by the Italian in the first person, makes an explosive dash through almost 50 years to a somewhat surreal and surprising finish. Years melt away in dependent clauses. By the novel's breathless conclusion, the protagonists are in their 70s.
Along the way, the master and the Italian work on a variety of scientific projects, such as fireworks, prediction of plague deaths, and a treatise on the behavior of ants.
In addition, they make passing attempts to write their autobiographies, whose putative objectivity is repeatedly impaired by the authors' subjectivity. Their last project, a gargantuan weapon, founders in the mud during the Ottoman's European campaign. The Hoja, who has learned the minutiae of the Italian's life through cajoling and coercion, assumes the slave's personality and flees to Italy to escape responsibility for the ineffectual war machine. The Italian resumes life in Turkey as a free man, u ltimately taking up the identity of Hoja.
The final transmutation of the protagonists sounds sudden in the retelling, but it is prepared for by a generous sprinkling of hints.
By the middle of the novel, despite their master-slave relationship, the men acknowledge that they are becoming like brothers. The Italian narrator realizes that he must have learned as much from Hoja as the master did from him. This parity becomes a turning point. Readers can mark the beginning of the protagonists' personality conversion, which starts long before circumstances necessitate it.
In fact, the fabrication of identity is interposed early on in the text by a fictional preface, penned by one Faruk Darvinoglu and dedicated to his sister. Slyly, both are characters in Pamuk's contemporary second volume, ``The Silent House.'' Darvinoglu, an out-of-work professor turned encyclopedist and tippler, usually in that order, recounts how he found the manuscript and how the story tantalized him to the point that he began to think that he had written it rather than discovered it.
To Roland Barthes's question, ``Who is speaking?'' there is no easy answer. ``The White Castle'' may have been written by Darvinoglu, the Italian, Hoja, or all three of them.
Given the bent of contemporary theory, concerned as it is with the death of the author, ``The White Castle'' is arguably ``written'' not by Orham Pamuk, but by those who read it. To a significant degree, the novel is about the act of writing. It is as if Pamuk's realist first novel opened on to textual experiments with the limits of the imaginary.
At the same time, though, Pamuk takes up themes that have appeared in his earlier work. The Westernization of Turkey, which has resulted in an absorption with time and especially with self, preoccupy Pamuk. He has used the familiar tension between reality and fiction, which all writers work with, to embody the process of cultural change that has taken place not only in his homeland, but also throughout the world.
It is doubtful that Pamuk's present experimental style will allow him to become as popular with English speakers as is Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. But having deftly recapitulated the history of the novel from Honore Balzac to Thomas Pynchon in just four outings, Pamuk's star is one to watch.