Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence

By Rob Packer

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence is his first novel after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature—a clearly political, probably premature, and ultimately deserved honour. Ostensibly a love-story set in the 70’s and 80’s in Istanbul, the book tells the story of Kemal, a wealthy socialite, whose perfect society engagement to Sibel breaks down as he becomes increasingly infatuated with Füsun, a humble distant relative. It is also a return to Pamuk’s previous autobiographical work, Istanbul: Memories and the City and explores similar themes, such as memory and, above all, hüzün, a melancholy peculiar to the city that stems as much from its reputation as an East-West crossroads as the city’s own internalization of that dialectic (director Hüseyin Karabey explains it in this travel video from The Guardian).

For Pamuk (1952-), hüzün is collective and comes from the city’s long decline in post-Ottoman Republican Turkey. Visions of an inaccessible happier past are ever-present in the book, whether in the image of a yalı (a Bosphorus summerhouse) going up in flames after its patrician owners rented it out to a Turkish film company, summer outdoor cinemas in courtyards since replaced by apartment blocks and car parks, the almost apocalyptic vision of Istanbulites congregating in a park night after night to watch a fire after two boats collide in the Bosphorus, or the constant presence of Soviet military vessels passing through the heart of the city.

The city’s chattering classes seem preoccupied with embracing “modern” European ideas while disdaining religious Anatolian nouveaux riches arriving in the city. Kemal, in particular, is particularly dismissive of the simplistic plots of Turkish films, but as he immerses himself in the Istanbul film world to stay close to Füsun, he never notices the irony that the on-screen melodramas are almost identical to his own story.

For Kemal, the effects of hüzün are profound and are similar to Avicenna’s diagnosis of ḥuzn “in a lovesick man if his pulse increased dramatically when the name of the girl he loved was spoken” (from Wikipedia). Kemal obsesses over Füsun, preserving his memory of her by stealing the bottle caps, cigarette butts, saltshakers and earrings that will eventually make up the Museum of Innocence of the title (and soon to be real-life): every now and again, the museum curator steps to draw our attention to a particular photo or display that evokes a particular moment.

It’s objectification in its most literal sense and Kemal says, “it cheered me to have broken off a piece of her, however small”. But this type of fetish—in all senses of the word—is no way to preserve or deal with the present: as Kemal tries jealously to preserve every moment through detailed mental notes, he loses touch with what Füsun actually wants and who she really is.

Unlike the book’s men, its women are mostly sensible and Füsun says that “there’s no such thing as love” in Turkish society. For Kemal, though, egocentrism is at the heart of his infatuation and he often comes across as a spoilt brat, at one point expressing the realization “that for most people life was not a joy to be embraced with a full heart but a miserable charade to be endured with a false smile, a narrow path of lies, punishment, and repression”. As his successful life breaks down and he retreats into his obsession, the narrative becomes increasingly claustrophobic leaving well-to-do Nişantaşı neighbourhood and palaces on the Bosphorus and re-centring itself in flood-prone Çukurcama.

As in all of Pamuk’s books, there is a locally rooted melancholy at the heart of The Museum of Innocence and the translator, Maureen Freely, does a fantastic job at tweaking the narrative to explain euphemisms, “internationalizing” the text while preserving its localness. But rather than seeing the book just as a reflection on the clichéd East-West divide at the centre of Istanbul, I think the book says something just as important about humanity’s desire to preserve the past.

And this is just as important in today’s internet age: we are probably all guilty of trying to preserve the fleeting moment through a camera lens. For instance, how many people did you see immediately uploading photos to Facebook at yesterday’s party, fireworks display or concert? Is this participation or self-isolation?

Orhan Pamuk, The Museum of Innocence (Masumiyet Müzesi), Faber & Faber 2009

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