Book review: The Museum of Innocence

(Published in Mail Today, November 2009)

The Museum of Innocence
Orhan Pamuk
Faber and Faber
POUINDS 12.99, 536 pages
ISBN 978-0-571-23699-2

“What I am trying to explain,” Orhan Pamuk wrote in Istanbul (2005), “is the huzun (melancholy) of an entire city, of Istanbul.”

Pamuk, the most celebrated of Turkey’s writers, has had to carve out an unusual path in his decades of writing. Unlike his contemporaries in Turkey, he gives himself the freedom to see his country with a clear, unsparing eye. Unlike writers from the West, he must explain the culture his writing is steeped in. Instead of explaining Istanbul or Turkey, though, he reinvents and reimagines this world for an audience that could just as well be sitting in Istanbul’s cafes as Europe’s salons, or India’s metropolises.

The Museum of Innocence, Pamuk’s first novel after he won the Nobel Prize for literature, is ostensibly about love and obsession. It’s also an evocation of huzun, a meditation on the attractions and uses of melancholy.

“It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn’t know it.” There is a precision to this moment, as there is to the rest of Kemal’s story—it happens “on the afternoon of Monday, May 26, 1975, at about a quarter to three”, as he enters his lover from behind, and nothing in his life will ever be the same again. Kemal is rich, successful, on the brink of the perfect marriage to Sibel, a girl from a similarly privileged Istanbullu family, and what will change his life is the oldest story in the world—his love for Fusun, a shopgirl, and a distant relative from an impoverished branch of Kemal’s family.

If this sounds like the storyline of a Turkish—or an Indian—melodrama, Pamuk sets up the echo deliberately. The Museum of Innocence is a straightforward tale of desire and obsession; an unusual form for the master of the baroque plot to choose, almost a reversion to the early 21st century Marquezian or Nabokovian explorations of the topography of love. Fusun and Kemal occupy the no-man’s-land between the conventional demands of Istanbul society, and its yearning for the beguiling but dangerous freedom of the individual promised by the West.

The definition of love Pamuk offers in The Museum of Innocence is “deep attention” blended with “deep compassion”; Kemal’s obsession with Fusun is a function of the painful, acutely focused attention he finds himself compelled to offer–as with lovers down the ages, for no good reason. Rendered impotent with his fiancee, he retreats, Sibel by his side, from the round of parties and opulent amusements that govern their “insular, intimate” circle, but the relationship ends; Fusun marries someone else; and Kemal spends eight years at the edges of her life, a guest at her family’s very middle-class dining table, a possible source of funds for the film she wants to make and star in, a casual but committed drunk.

Released from the glittering but airless world of crumbling privilege he was born into, Kemal discovers the vivid and corrupt world of Turkey’s film-makers, who aspire to make art films, sometimes make melodramas, and must usually survive by making or dubbing soft porn films. By the 400th page, the reader knows that this tale will have a conventional, dramatic twist; and Pamuk delivers as expected.

It’s a conventional storyline, but what lifts The Museum of Innocence into the realm of the classic is Pamuk’s understanding of the frailty of love, and the fierce effort needed to maintain it.

Rising up alongside the figure of the lovers is the ghost of Istanbul, a city struggling to be remembered, known, familiar, mired in its own melancholy, reaching for change even as it holds on to the sexual and social shibboleths of the past. And Kemal’s closest kin are not other lovers, but the obsessive collectors of Istanbul, whose homes fill up with the accumulated memorabilia of a city just as he allows the many rooms of his life to be filled with shrines to a love often consummated but never possessed. The last chapter is turned over to the figure of Orhan Pamuk, allowing the writer to make a cameo appearance in his work.

The Istanbul he evokes is familiar to readers of his previous work, and The Museum of Innocence is as much a tribute to its lost, forgotten icons as it is to the power of first love. Turkey’s first domestic fruit soda, Meltem; a floral batiste handkerchief folded carefully by Fusun; a modified Nisantasi map of Istanbul; tombala sets and salt-shakers, New Year’s lottery tickets, china dogs, 4,213 of Fusun’s cigarette butts, bottles of Altun Damla cologne, everything that might be found in the locked glass cabinets of a well-off Istanbullu’s home.

The Museum of Innocence is not Pamuk’s most ambitious work, but it is his most evocative. And Pamuk retains his ability to surprise, even within the bounds of convention. Three-fourths through his lushly told but straightforward narrative, Pamuk reaches Chapter 69, where every sentence, for four pages, begins with the word ‘Sometimes’. The young Pamuk would have felt the need to exhibit his literary exuberance throughout the book; the older Pamuk allows himself this one flourish, and then lets us meditate again on why there are no museums to the human heart, except for the one that he has built in these pages.

(For a much more detailed review and overview of Pamuk’s work, read Pico Iyer’s long essay, Secret Love in the Lost City. And visit Pamuk’s real-life Museum of Innocence–it’s beautiful.)





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