“We all know the joys of degradation,” Nobel Prize-winning Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk wrote in an essay on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Undergound included in Pamuk’s 2007 collection of nonfiction, Other Colors. If we all, indeed, have learned that it can be “pleasurable, even relaxing, to run ourselves down,” as Pamuk puts it, then Kemal, protagonist of The Museum of Innocence, knows better than most the gratification of all-consuming obsession.
The Museum of Innocence is an enchanting work of fiction, Pamuk’s first since his brilliant, best-selling political novel Snow appeared in 2004. As Museum of Innocence begins, Kemal, 30-year-old scion of a wealthy and Westernized Istanbul family, is soon to marry his European-educated paramour, Sibel.
Before a life of carefully plotted happiness can get under way, Kemal undermines it by entering into an impassioned affair with Fusun, an 18-year-old shopgirl and distant relation whom he seduces while tutoring her for mathematics exams. The liaison becomes the defining event of his life — so much so that after the affair is brought to a halt, Kemal spends the rest of his days attempting to recapture and re-create the experience that sent him into a lifelong swoon.
That entails breaking off plans to be married — though not before Pamuk presents a tour de force account of an engagement party at the Istanbul Hilton in which one of the meta-textual guests is a chain-smoking 23-year-old Orhan Pamuk. “Nothing special about him,” Kemal observes, “beyond his propensity to act nervous and impatient, affecting a mocking smile.”
The 57-year-old Pamuk (Pah-MOOK) sets his story principally in ‘70s Istanbul, the city where he was born and which he evoked in lovingly precise detail in his melancholy 2003 memoir, Istanbul: Memories and the City. Kemal’s affair runs down the family export business and eventually becomes “a public disgrace” mocked in gossip columns as he locates his lost love and hovers around her at every opportunity, even after her family has married her off to an undesirable suitor.
And it eventually leads him to become a near-permanent dinner guest at the home of Fusun and her parents in a section of town shabbier than the chic neighborhood by the Bosphorus where he lives with his mother. His family and friends may feel he is throwing his life away, but to Kemal, life boils down to “the ineluctable formula: Happiness means being close to the one you love, that’s all.” And if you can’t be close to the one you love, you can at least be close to her things.
That realization leads Kemal to start pilfering objects from Fusun’s family’s home. In one sharply drawn scene, he walks off with a quince grinder, only to be stopped after curfew by the police. It is the late ‘70s, Turkey is under martial law, and the cops want to know why he’s carrying a weaponlike object.
Kemal gathers the items in the apartment owned by his family where he first trysted with Fusun. There he begins building the collection that will be displayed in his Museum of Innocence. “I would lose myself in daydreams, admiring my slowly growing ‘collection’ with ever renewed wonder. As these objects accumulated, so did the manifest intensity of my love.”
In the book’s latter stages, Pamuk’s protagonist visits personalized museums around the world, from the Sir John Soanes Museum in London to the Ava Gardner Museum in North Carolina, seeking inspiration for the shrine he plans to open to the public. “After all,” he muses, “isn’t the purpose of a novel, or a museum, for that matter, to relate our memories with such sincerity as to transform individual happiness into a happiness all can share?”
In a delicious life-imitates-art twist, Pamuk is building his own Museum of Innocence in Istanbul; a ticket can be cut out of the book to gain free admission. Pamuk plans an exhibit in the museum for each of the novel’s 83 chapters, including one with 4,213 cigarette stubs.
Readers who came to Pamuk through Snow, a contemporary story that examined the country’s East-West divide through a German-based Turkish poet’s investigation into the suicides of Islamic “head scarf girls,” might be surprised by the seemingly apolitical focus of The Museum of Innocence. The new novel, though, displays the trademark preoccupations of Pamuk, who splits his time between New York, where he teaches at Columbia University, and Istanbul.
The Museum of Innocence digs deep into memory, and the inescapability of the past. And just as Dostoyevsky did in critiquing a Russia that looked outward to Europe rather than inward to find its soul, Pamuk portrays an upper class that takes its cues from the West, while threatening to dislodge itself from its native culture. In The Museum of Innocence Kemal is a graduate of an American business school who is chauffeured around in a 1956 Chevrolet, and his best friend sells Turks their “first domestic fruit soda,” with a blond German model as a saleswoman.
At more than 500 pages, The Museum of Innocence can be slow going, although the action picks up considerably toward the end. Even when the plot is at a standstill, however, the grace of Pamuk’s prose makes it a delight to luxuriate in the company of his delusional, sad-sack main character.
In a chapter called “Sometimes”, Kemal’s every sentence begins with that word: “Sometimes I could tell from Fusun’s expression that she was daydreaming, and I would long to visit the country in her imagination, although everything seemed hopeless — my life, my lethargy, and even the way I sat there… Sometimes I would say, ‘I’ll smoke one more cigarette, and then I’ll go.’”
Pamuk’s triumph is that you wish Kemal would stay a while longer.