The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

03/01/10, The Times

Reading The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk’s first novel since his Nobel Prize in 2006, one is constantly reminded of Walter Benjamin’s famous line in his essay on book-collecting, ‘Unpacking My Library’: ‘Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.’ Its protagonist, Kemal, who also narrates the novel in the first person, is the scion of one of Istanbul’s wealthiest families and one month before his engagement to Sibal, he becomes besotted by Füsun, a distant cousin, and embarks on a steamy relationship with her, conducted in Merhamet Apartments, a disused flat owned by his mother, now a repository of discarded things. Unable to call off either the engagement or the consuming affair with Füsun, he goes ahead with the former; Füsun disappears from his life the day after the lavish engagement party at the Hilton. From this point on, Kemal sinks into the obsession that will mark him for life. He starts collecting objects that are related, however tangentially or remotely, to their brief and intense relationship, all of which will end up in the Museum of Innocence that he will set up to commemorate the doomed affair.

His impending marriage to Sibal destroyed, his life blasted, his peace of mind gone, Kemal can now derive a semblance of peace and happiness only in contact with things that remind him of Füsun: the butt of a cigarette she smoked, the bottle from which she drank soda, used teacups, barrettes, earrings, and a proliferating range of other objects. Then 339 days – Kemal obsessively counts days and hours and minutes and catalogues them – after she had ended their foredoomed affair, Füsun writes to Kemal, asking him to visit at her family home in Çukurcuma. She is now married to a struggling filmmaker, Feridun, and however intolerable this state of affairs is to Kemal, he arrives at some kind of a trade-off with himself: that it would be better to see her and be near her, even if he has to put a lid on his passion, than go through the pain of separation and absence again. Seven years and ten months and 1593 suppers elapse at Füsun’s home. Then the twists and turns in the love-story bring happiness only to take it away again.

Beginning in 1975 and narrated from the vantage point of the future, one of the novel’s conceits is that it is a museum catalogue of its exhibits. (Reflexive and overdetermined, it is a conceit that reveals its rather heavy hand fully towards the end.) Epideictic markers (‘Here I display Füsun’s white panties with her childish white socks and her dirty white sneakers, without comment, to evoke our spells of sad silence.’) occur in almost every chapter, making the novel a type of monument. At one point Kemal explains, ‘After all, isn’t the purpose of the novel, or of a museum … to relate our memories with such sincerity as to transform individual happiness into a happiness all can share?’

But the real armature of the novel is not the prolix and wooden love story; instead, it is the synchronic and almost encyclopaedic memorialisation of Istanbul. Seen through the prism of this, it is not so much a work of fiction as a psychogeography of this Janus of a city, poised as it is, literally, culturally and historically, as the mid-point between several sets of oppositions: East and West; Islam and Christian; religious and secular. The dialectics between the two is a theme Pamuk has chosen to make his own and these oppositions form the core of his earlier fiction, most successfully in My Name is Red. It forms a substantial part of The Museum of Innocence too but almost as an afterthought: the star here is not so much that old theme as the city itself.

It is a novel relentlessly anchored in the materiality of a very real, and very realistically evoked, city, thick with details: television programmes; the particular sound of alarm in radios; cinemas and films of the 70s; the types of clocks in households; tombala games on New Year’s Eve; the arbitrary and corrupt behaviour of the Turkish film censor board; the mushrooming of European-style restaurants; the growth of the nouveaux riches; the first DJs in Istanbul; streets and neighbourhoods; the first food processor; eating out on the Bosphorus; the smells of the breezes … it is as if the Balzacian realism that Pamuk learnt from the European masters of the form is regurgitating itself as an act of tethering. Yet, where Balzac and Flaubert can make the material stand in and speak of inner weather, of human lives, with perfect transparency, as if through a clear pane of glass, here the connections have to be established by the narrator’s, well, connections.

One suspects that Pamuk’s project may not be so much a nostalgic return to an outmoded model of realism as something at once more personal and more public: what better way to conjoin the two than reveal the palimpsest that is the city (public) though the discourse of the erotic (private)? Now resident in New York, Pamuk has crafted an exile’s inexorably nostalgic love letter to his city; he has done this before in Istanbul but now he commandeers the formidable artillery available to fiction to see if new territory can be annexed to his project. If you think this book is Sebaldian in its attempt at an archaeology of the memory of place, what are we to make of the fact that Pamuk has been engaged in building a Museum of Innocence in Istanbul for the last ten years? It will open next year and will display 83 objects, one each for the 83 chapters in his novel. He has never held back from appearing in his own fiction – the final chapter, ‘Happiness’, in The Museum of Innocence, is a sleight-of-hand in which ‘Orhan Pamuk’ addresses the reader and reveals that it is he who has written Kemal’s story in the first person – but now he inserts his own fiction into the fabric of the city he has set out to memorialise.