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The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

‘Pamuk has created a work concerning romantic love worthy to stand in the company of Lolita, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina.’ –Financial Times

The museum of innocence

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.

Rating: four and a half stars

(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.[1] 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.”

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Courtesy of Wikipedia

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.


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


15 thoughts on “The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

  1. Hi, love your review :). Pamuk is indeed very observant and hawk-eyed when it comes to Turkish society, especially those upper-class people living in Istanbul and that’s why his depiction of said society in this book is so riveting and I love it. But I couldn’t bear Kemal’s prolonged obsession for Fusun which inhabits most of the narrative, and I honestly had to wait for the story to end. So unlike you, I don’t think this book is Pamuk’s best work.

    Posted by erdeaka | August 9, 2015, 1:03 am
    • Thanks for your kind words erdeaka. I think I like this book better for two reasons:
      1. I didn’t read “My Name is Red” which heralded to be his best work
      2. The writing and the flow of this novel is much better than Snow.
      Kemal’s obsession may prove to be tiresome. 🙂

      Posted by JoV | August 10, 2015, 3:27 pm
  2. I definitely want to read it!!

    Posted by rumadak | August 10, 2015, 12:34 am
  3. I’ve read Snow and I’ve been interested to read this book ever since learning about how Pamuk created a real museum associated with it. I didn’t read much of your review, just in case, but your enthusiasm reignites my interest in reading it.

    Posted by biblioglobal | August 10, 2015, 11:35 pm
  4. I started reading the book by chance this spring. A few weeks after we planned a trip to Istanbul, where I had the chance to visit the museum.
    Reading the book was one thing, one type of experience, but taken it together with the museum it gets doubled, trebled.
    The book is just half of the artistic project made up by the book, the museum and the hyperexpensive catalogue of the museum. Only by going through all three I (think I) understood what did Pamuk mean. It is an immensly original and creative artistic experiment meant to take you through all sensorial dimensions: feelings, sounds, smells, and most of all objects.
    One can only feel richer on the inside after this walkthrough. The book is a 4*. The museum maybe a 3*. But taken as a whole, the project is nothing less of 5*.

    Posted by Andrei | August 28, 2015, 7:30 pm
    • Thank you Andrei for visiting my blog and for sharing your experience of the museum. I am visiting Turkey in October and I pray that I have the luxury and time to visit the museum. It sounds fascinating to hear both the book and the museum had such an impact on you!

      Posted by JoV | September 7, 2015, 6:27 pm
  5. Lovely review, Jo! I’ve only ever read Snow, ut this one sounds pretty good, though long, as well. Looks like a chunkster was just what you needed 🙂 Also, thanks for pointing out the creation of the museum, I had no idea.

    Posted by Bina | September 10, 2015, 1:33 pm
    • Hi Bina, Long time no speak! Hope you are well. Been rubbish in reading this year but this is one of those books that stayed on my mind for a very long time after reading. It is one of those days where I got extra work stress, bad weather and to avoid from anxiety, I sat down with a good CHUNKSTER and got sucked into the protagonist Kemal’s misery! LOL. I read for pure escapism in this case and it was a memorable reading experience. 😉

      Sometimes I read other people’s misery to forget about my own, not sure if that’s the case for other people but I find reading for this purpose keeps me going…..

      Posted by JoV | September 12, 2015, 9:10 pm
  6. Very appealing review of this great novel about an obsessive character. I enjoyed Pamuk’s novel and recommend also to read it parallel to his Istanbul book – and after that you will almost for sure visit this gorgeous city and The Museum of Innocence, which is a gem in itself. Highly recommended.

    Posted by Mytwostotinki | November 25, 2015, 2:02 pm
    • Thanks for dropping by Mytwostotinki, I have his Istanbul book with me. I came back from Turkey about 1.5 months ago and the city of Istanbul still lingers long in my thoughts. I want to go back there….

      Posted by JoV | December 3, 2015, 8:50 pm
  7. I’ve nominated you for the Beautiful Blogger Award:

    Posted by maphead | February 14, 2016, 4:02 am


  1. Pingback: My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk | JoV's Book Pyramid - March 3, 2017

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

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The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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