The Museum of Innocence
The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk
Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel, The Museum of Innocence, has three epigraphs. His last major work of fiction, Snow, has four epigraphs. His novel My Name Is Red also has three epigraphs. Pamuk’s love of epigraphs is significant; they are emblematic of Pamuk’s curiously humanist brand of postmodernism. Pamuk’s novels are, at their core, composed of tiny fragments of significance: short episodes, two page chapters, key actions, key phrases, even key words, each with tiny gleams of meaning that stand alone but are amplified when those fragments come in contact and resonate with each other. These fragments are collected by Pamuk and stitched together in his distinctive voice. All of Pamuk’s novels are museums; not only museums of epigraphs, but of stories told through the collection of wondrous things.
The Museum of Innocence is a simple love story, set in Istanbul over a period of three decades, from the seventies to the present day. Kemal, the young, engaged scion of a rich Istanbul family, falls in love with a poor distant relative, the beautiful Füsun. When the doomed relationship falls apart, Kemal spends the rest of his life obsessing over Füsun and trying to win her back. What distinguishes this love story from a typical melodrama is the level of detail with which Pamuk recounts every emotion and thought that occupies Kemal’s mind. Here is his description of Kemal’s love pains:
Let me explain to readers without access to our museum that the deepest pain was initially felt in the upper left-hand quadrant of my stomach. As the pain increased, it would, as the overlay indicates, radiate to the cavity between my lungs and my stomach. At that point its abdominal presence would no longer be confined to the left side, having spread to the right, feeling rather as if a hot poker or a screwdriver were twisting into me.
Kemal’s story may not be unique, but the detail with which the story is told gives it a profound, tangible presence in the mind of the reader, and the attention paid to the quotidian is, eventually, staggering. We are told what was on Turkish television in the late Seventies, which movies were popular, which restaurants were favored by rich Istanbulites, even which brands of soda were drunk. I found this colorful account of the experience of watching a soccer game in late ’70s Istanbul particularly memorable:
The more affluent spectators in the numbered stands did the same as they had done in the mid-1950s: whenever the exhausted players approached the sidelines, especially the less glorious defensemen, they would shower them with abuse, rather as the Roman masters cursed gladiators from the tribunes (“Run, you gutless f–!”); while from the open stands, the poor, the unemployed and students echoed the angry curses in unison, hoping to make their voices heard, too.
To the extent to which the love affair of Kemal and Füsun resembles the melodramatic Turkish films that Kemal and Füsun so often watch in the novel, it is intentional. For Pamuk, those films and the experience of watching them, those scraps that describe what ordinary life was like for a Cold War, post-Atatürk Istanbulite, are just as important as the love affair at the center of the book and recounted with just as much detail. The stated mission of the novel is to encourage “all the people of the world to take pride in the lives they live”; it is, at base, a Turkish pop culture novel.
The Museum of Innocence is not Pamuk’s best work, but I do not hesitate to recommend this book. With only one central plot thread, the love story, the reading experience is nowhere near as rich as the experience of reading the phenomenally complex Snow or My Name Is Red. Female readers in particular might have a difficult time sympathizing with Kemal, who is often controlling and oppressive. Even the most romantically inclined readers will be challenged not to see Kemal as a nightmarish stalker when he begins collecting all of Füsun’s cigarette butts (all 4,213 of them, to be exact). Yet, the ending is one of the most virtuosic, breathtaking feats of novel writing I have ever read. In those last forty-odd pages, Pamuk successfully makes this novel into a monument to that most remarkable of human capacities: the ability to hold on to and celebrate a cherished memory, even as the happiness associated with it slips into the irretrievable past.
Reviewed by Dylan Suher
The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk
Alfred E. Knopf, 2009
Cloth, 560 pp, $28.95
Posted in Reviews