Books

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

Dan DeLuca
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

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.


The Museum of Innocence

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Length: 535 pages
Author: Orhan Pamuk, Maureen Freely (Translator)
Price: $28.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2009-10
Amazon

"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.

7

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
5
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image