Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s new museum, named for and based on his 2008 novel The Museum of Innocence, has opened in Istanbul. Here is our review of the book.
The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk. Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely. Vintage International, 532 pages, $7.99.
By Christopher M. Ohge.
The latest novel (now in paperback) from Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk is The Museum of Innocence, a tragic story of a wealthy, Istanbul man who goes against his societal code and chooses a deliberate life governed by passion. The book also proffers a profound depiction of Istanbul, a city whose identity is symbolized by the Bosphorus—a bridge between the Middle East and Europe, Muslim and Christian, traditional and secular. What results is an urban portrait recalling the grimness of Dostoyevsky’s St. Petersburg and the romanticism of Proust’s Paris.
“Real museums are places where Time is transformed into Space,” declares Kemal, the main character of the novel, after he has seemingly lost everything—save the mementos of his beloved Füsun that comprise what he calls his Museum of Innocence. Aristotle’s distinction between time (a line connecting all moments in the present) and single moments of the present is ever-present in the book, suggesting that we need to stop thinking about a linear conception of experience: “sometimes these moments we call the ‘present’ can bring us enough happiness to last a century, as they did if Füsun smiled.”
The story begins with the happiest moment in Kemal’s life, just after he makes love to Füsun, his 18-year-old distant cousin. In the next chapter, Kemal is having dinner with his fiancée, not Füsun but the Sorbonne-educated Sibel, who represents the standard quasi-arranged mate for an upper-class Turk like Kemal. However, the persistence of Kemal’s desire outweighs the conventional happiness he seems to have set up with Sibel. Kemal falls in love with Füsun after an awkward exchange over a fake handbag at her work, a popular boutique that so aptly gives its customers “a subtler illusion of being in a European city.”
At its best, Orhan Pamuk’s novel is powerfully cinematic, combining the nouveau riche chatter of a Fellini film with the thorny romantic relationships found in Woody Allen; at its weakest, the prose falls short, occasionally becoming pretentious and overly sentimental.
At first, Kemal carries on a two-month affair with her at his parents’ flat in the Merhamet Apartments, indulging in such unruffled reveries as this:
It may well be that, in a moment of joy, one might sincerely believe they are living that golden instant ‘now’ . . . but whatever they say, in one part of their hearts they still believe in the certainty of a happier moment to come. Because how could anyone, and particularly anyone who is still young, carry on with the belief that everything could only get worse: If a person is happy enough to think he has reached the happiest moment of his life, he will be hopeful enough to believe his future will be just as beautiful.
Yet that sexually-induced bliss passes because of Kemal’s inability to break off his engagement; and Füsun, after airing some cleverly ambiguous grievances at Kemal’s engagement party, anticipates Kemal’s obsession: “When we lose people we love, we should never disturb their souls, whether living or dead. Instead, we should find consolation in an object that reminds you of them.” Füsun then disappears, and Kemal earnestly begins to collect things related to her. He eventually finally finds Füsun, who has married Feridun, a loafer/aspiring filmmaker (Istanbul being the third-largest film industry at the time). And after a seven-year, 10-month effort by Kemal, which includes delightfully mundane nights of “sitting” (a Turkish cultural staple; Chapter 55 gives a thorough account) with Füsun’s family, taking Füsun and her husband out to carouse with the film crowd, and bankrolling his own film company, Füsun divorces her husband, and agrees to marry Kemal. However, the marriage never happens.
The climax, perhaps as predictable as it is cathartic, is perhaps a nod to the car-wreck conclusion in Truffaut’s film Jules and Jim; nevertheless, by the end of the book, there may be some sense of relief, as Kemal, who is described as disheveled and angst-ridden by others, wants to “Let everyone know, I lived a very happy life.”
With brilliant ingenuity, Pamuk’s novel addresses the strange nature of a common obsession: collectibles, which to him “were no longer just tokens of moments in my life, nor merely mementos; to me they were elemental to those moments.” The objects on display give the visitor to his museum “the particles of experience” to recall “the entire reality” of past events.
The novel’s unique frame story also offers a compelling experience: through the first 500 or so pages, you think the narrator is Kemal, but it turns out that the story is being written by the eccentric wordsmith Orhan Pamuk, whom Kemal hired to write his story as an annotated guidebook for the Museum of Innocence. Pamuk’s narrative tactic is more than just authorial playfulness. Because the events are related through his namesake, Orhan, who is a character in the novel trying to inhabit the thoughts of Kemal in the first person, the potential sentimentality of the central romantic obsession is undercut with a bracing application of retroactive irony.
The extracts provided before the story reflect Pamuk’s eclectic influences, which include the celebrated Turkish journalist Celal Salik (who also appears in the novel), Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, perhaps the most important Turkish novelist before Pamuk (whose central concern was also time). While the essential theme of this book is the tension between East and West, many of the ideas stem from a great tradition of novels providing rambling philosophical investigations (Sterne), the prominence of passion (Hugo), and the pleasure of degradation (Dostoyevsky). Kemal’s love for Füsun also recalls M. Swann’s love for Odette in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past—poisonous, leading to utter degradation, yet also living in memory and providing comfort in an increasingly inauthentic world.
What results is not only Pamuk’s answer to the great novelists who preceded him but also a dictionary of contemporary Istanbul, as well as a sprawling metaphysical investigation of time and happiness relayed by a Sisyphean man reveling in his memories of a life lived deliberately—and joyfully accepting the consequences.