‘Pamuk has created a work concerning romantic love worthy to stand in the company of Lolita, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina.’ –Financial Times
Not sure what happened but the calling to pull out this chunkster of 728 pages calls to me on one weekend after a stressful week at work and I sat down to read. It is unusual, speaking for myself where I only managed to read a measly 6 books this year. I soon got so hooked on it that I finished half of the book in one weekend and by the next weekend I finished all of it. I haven’t read any reviews related to it and I haven’t had a clue what the book was about, that was why I find many elements in this book a pleasant surprise. If you want to read the book in the near future, my review may contain spoilers.
The Museum of Innocence is set mostly in Istanbul in the 1970’s. In April 1975 Kemal, the son of one of Istanbul’s richest families, met beautiful Füsun, the shop girl in a small boutique when Kemal went shopping with his fiancé Sibel. It was love (or obsession) at first sight, and soon Kemal found himself falling in love and obsessed with Füsun, which also happens to be a poor and distant relation of Kemal (which make it a convenient excuse to be able to see Füsun year after year without arousing any obvious suspicion in a both conservative and liberal society in Turkey).
Kemal and Füsun thus fell into an intense love, Kemal was torn between marrying his fiancé Sibel of equal social status and giving up everything for Füsun. Kemal didn’t break off his engagement at the end, thus resulted in his romantic pursuit of Füsun over the next eight years (which turns out to be a surprise for me because I didn’t read the introduction of this book and finds it strange that anyone could find an excuse to come for dinner at a relative house 3 to 4 times a week for the next 8 years!).
Kemal would be classified in psychological term, a Kleptomaniac, as he steals items that Füsun touched and anything that reminded him of his moment with Füsun; compulsively amasses a collection of objects that chronicles his lovelorn progress of a museum containing items of his proclamation of his great love and the society of his time. This idea of such museum is an interesting concept because I used to be hoarder of ticket stubs, cards, notes from friends; a sentimental person who values every memory that I have. The recent years however, having lived in a small space and even after moving to a bigger house I have since learnt to de-clutter and throw waste out of my life more aggressively in the past. I often wonder if there was something amiss by decluttering, and this book almost make me want to be a hoarder again (lol!) to remember the fragment of the good times that I had with my loved ones. 🙂
The ending, sorry to spoil it for you, as I instinctively felt, was not going to be a good one. The beginning was intense, erotic and captivating; the middle was a long series of chapters of how obsessive Kemal is for his Füsun; the end was fast and painful; but it was how beautiful the beginning of the book of both Kemal’s love affair that the readers, and I, understood, appreciate and persevere of reading Kemal detailing every little thing that happened in his life with Füsun that covers a big part of the novel. Every cigarette butts that Füsun puts out, every frown, every snub, every perfume, every gesture that Füsun displayed are analysed and detailed. If you haven’t fallen so deeply in love before, I would think these long drawn obsession and demonstration of love may bore you. I was fortunate (or cursed!) to dwell in such pain for awhile when I was younger but reading about Kemal makes me feel better to know that my condition then wasn’t as chronic as Kemal’s!
On a serious note, the novel depicts a panoramic view of life in Istanbul as it chronicles this long, obsessive love affair; and Pamuk beautifully captures the identity crisis experienced by Istanbul’s upper classes that find themselves caught between traditional and westernised ways of being. For example: a Turkish woman who appears contemporary by not wearing headscarf or smokes, is still bothered by losing her virginity before marriage. One who did that before marriage and if the engagement is broken is seen as a disgrace by the society. Sometimes to cover up, the parents marry the daughter off to any suitor; Being religious and wearing headscarves are seen as not being modern; wanting the Turkish cinema to breakthrough in its old ways but having their own wives or lovers involved in kissing scenes is a no-no etc.
There are many side stories and interesting characters besides Kemal and Füsun, and they all serve as a kaleidoscope of the Istanbul society in an era where curfews were imposed, political unrest is rife. The analysis of the film industry of Turkey and the gathering place of wanna-bes movie stars is one of the key theme in the book as Kemal funded his first film project. Kemal’s relationship with each of the Keskin (Füsun) family, the memories and habits that they created together in the 8 years they dined and watched TV together. Kemal spirals into his love obsession has a detrimental effect on his relationship with his mother, brother and the family business; as we see the consequences of Kemal’s failing business, estranged relationship with his brother and Kemal being ostracised by his circle of friends from the high society. The one who is being wronged, Sibel, was an extraordinary woman I admired, whom Kemal does not have the good fate to marry.
In Europe, the rich are refined enough to act as if they’re not wealth. That is how civilised people behave. If you ask me, being cultured and civilised is not about everyone being free and equal; it’s about everyone being refined enough to act as if they were. Then no one has to feel guilty. – page 303
…. No one recognises the happiest moment of their lives as they are living it. …. But when we reach the point when our lives take on their final shape, as in a novel, we can identify out happiest moment, selecting it in retrospect, as I am going now. To explain why we have chosen this moment over all others, it is also natural, and necessary, to retell our stories from the beginning, just as in a novel. But to designate this as my happiest moment is to acknowledge that it is far in the past, that it will never return, and that awareness, therefore, of that every moment if painful. We can bear the pain only by possessing something that belongs to that instant, these mementos preserve the colours, textures, images, and delights as they were more faithfully, in fact, than can those who accompanied us through those moments. – page 98
Orhan Pamuk’s first novel since winning the Nobel Prize is a stirring and heart searing love story. I find myself lost in the time tunnel of 70’s Istanbul. I found out that Pamuk built The Museum of Innocence in the house in which his hero’s fictional family lived, to display Kemal’s strange collection of objects associated with Fusun and their relationship. The house opened to the public in 2012 in the Beyoglu district of Istanbul.
The book serve as a good book club read too. I have my many analysis of the characters, both frustrations and admiration. I concluded that Kemal was made of a weak stock, unable to make a firm decision and then put himself in a situation where he would suffer relentlessly for not being able to hold the woman he loves with his entire being. Füsun is not all endearing to me either, I decided that she is just a very naïve and young girl, who fell in love once but her ambition of becoming an actress far exceeded her ability to love. Despite all these painful memories, longing and loss, Kemal wants Pamuk (who writes this story on his behalf) to let everyone know that, he lives a happy life……..
Even on our worst days, our reason does not stop speaking to us; even if unequal to the power of our passion, it continues to whisper with merciless candor that our actions will serve no purpose but to heighten our love, and therefore out pain. During the first nine months after I lost Füsun, my reason continue to whisper to me, ever more urgently, giving me the hope that one day it would usurp control of my mind and rescue me. Btu love mingled with such hope (even the simper hope that I would one day live without pain) gave me the strength to carry on in the face of my agony, while at the same time prolonging it. – page 316
This is the second book after Snow of Pamuk that I read. I am not sure if it is because of Kiran Desai (of Orange Fiction fame 2006 and Pamuk’s ex-girlfriend) editing that this book reads smoother than the one before but it was beautifully written. Put these two characters under the pen of Orhan Pamuk’s sensitive and observant writing, the result is epic. The story is romantic without appearing too sentimental, excels in the subtle exploration of the east and west collusion, a story of memory, desire and loss that stays with me long, very long, after I turned the last page.
I urge you to read this when you think you have forgotten how great love can be.
(It would have been 5 stars if it’s not for the prolonging expression of obsession)
Own paper copy. Publisher: Faber & Faber 2010; Paper Length: 728 pages; Setting: Istanbul Source: Own copy. Finished reading on: 2nd August 2015, Saturday.
For a detailed analysis, see Lisa’s review at ANZ Lit lovers.
The Museum of Innocence Situated in an area of Istanbul famous for the old antique shops that line its narrow streets, the museum reflects the unique character of everyday objects of 1970 upper-class Istanbul. It consists of a series of displays, each corresponding to one of the 83 chapters in the novel. According to the narrative, these objects were collected and arranged by Kemal, the novel’s protagonist, as they are connected to his memories of Füsun, his love interest throughout the novel. The displays include a large glass case containing 4,213 cigarette butts, each smoked by Füsun, a collection of salt shakers, and paintings and maps of the Istanbul streets where the narrative takes place. Everything in the museum’s four floors references the novel and the past era in which the book is set. Yet despite the coupling of museum and novel, Pamuk maintains that the museum and novel can be experienced independent of each other: “just as the novel is entirely comprehensible without a visit to the museum, so is the museum a place that can be visited and experienced on its own.”
Pamuk developed the idea for the museum and novel in parallel from the outset; the museum is not ‘based on’ the novel, and likewise the novel was not written to capture the museum. This blurring of lines between the two has been explored both in the novel The Museum of Innocence and in the museum catalogue, The Innocence of Objects. In the early 1990s, Pamuk began collecting objects from the past that he saw and liked in junk dealers’ shops and friends’ homes, gradually forming the narrative that would become The Museum of Innocence. If at a junk dealer’s he saw an object that he thought suited the novel, he bought it and described it in the text. He might stumble upon an object that would inspire a new story in the novel; or he might seek out objects to fit an existing story.