The Museum of Innocence ~ Orhan Pamuk

The Museum of Innocence is Orhan Pamuks‘ (My Name Is Red) novel of obsessive love, set in 1975 Istanbul and the years after. Istanbul is a city I’ve enjoyed exploring myself, but as a tourist –  it’s impossible to get the almost anthropological detail that Pamuk gives us here. The detail (both of the city and of obsession) is both its triumph and its downfall. The triumph is the portrait of Istanbul, that odd, wonderful city at the juncture of Europe and Asia. The downfall is the layered detail of obsessive love. The book is overlong by a third. Would it not have been possible to have told the story of Kemal Basmaci’s obsessive love at less length, and still have the sort of tragic impact that Pamuk was after?

Kemal is the heir apparent to a wealthy, upper-class family business. Even though very near to becoming engaged to the beautiful Sibel Hanim, Kemal begins an affair with a distant cousin, a mere “shop-girl”, the alluring Fusun Keskin. They begin to meet at a place no longer used by his mother, The Merhamet Apartments. There, their passion (and fate, as it turns out) is sealed. Fusun loses her virginity

Virginity in Turkish society of this time is a touchy and complicated topic. Whereas the ideal is still to be pure and moral before marriage, influences from Europe (The West) have brought new perspectives on the subject. Consequently, there are a great many of mixed signals about the ‘value’ of virginity during this period. If engaged, and marriage is imminent, then a blind eye is turned toward sex before marriage. If the engagement is broken off, however, then the woman will be seen as less desirable in society.

Fusun is seen as modern and courageous, while Sibel is seen as trusting and moral. Admiral qualities all, but they lead each down different paths, and form the basis for the way society looks at each of them. Torn both ways (between East and West, if you will), Kemal goes through with a huge engagement party at the Hilton (“the” place), all the while carrying on his affair with Fusun. He even goes so far as to make sure she is invited to the party. It’s at this affair (the society event of the year) that the narrator (Kemal) introduces us to the “fidgety” Pamuk family.

Like so many formerly rich families that had squandered their fortunes, the Pamuks had turned in on themselves and found it upsetting to come face-to-face with new money. Sitting with his beautiful mother, his father, his elder brother, hs uncle, and his cousins was the chain-smoking twenty-three-year-old Orhan, nothing special about him beyond his propensity to act nervous and impatient, affecting a mocking smile.

There are eighty-eight chapters in the book, so individually they are quite short. Chapter 24 (The Engagement Party) though, runs to some forty-three pages – an indication as to the importance of the chapter in the scheme of things. This chapter is a turning point. After the engagement party, Fusun disappears. It will be some time before he sees her again. His obsession grows, almost unbearable, seeing visions of her everywhere.

Kamal and Sibel move in together in a yah, on the Bosphorus. Yah’s are those wooden summer homes right on the water that are vestiges of the past. Elsewhere, Pamuk has written about these crumbling homes that are rapidly burning up and making way for modern apartments. The act of moving in together is a last desperate attempt by Sibel to retrieve Kemal from his obsession. It is an act of faith on her part. Throughout Pamuk frequently writes about Kemal’s obsession and the decaying society in which he finds himself.

It was clear that strict regimens and prohibitions had been useless, though we still enjoyed living together in this once grand, now crumbling yak. However hopeless out situation, there was something about this decrepit house that bound us together and made our pain bearable by endowing it with a strange beauty. The yak added gravity and historical depth to this doomed love of ours; our sorrow and defeat were so great that the vestigial presence of a vanished Ottoman culture could furnish what we had lost as old lovers, as a newly engaged couple. The world evoked protected us somehow from the pain we felt at being unable to make love.

Related to this is the interesting observation that explains how society shifts its perceptions. At the nexus of rigid mores and a more liberal attitude toward the norms that used to hold, is what he calls the “as if” culture.

It was a great joy to study the myriad social refinements of which anthropologists seem to have so little understanding, and most especially these rituals that allowed families to act “as if” they were respecting tradition, even as they broke with it.

There’s a chapter where every sentence starts with “sometimes” that seems right out of Beckett’s Watt. Poetic, in its repetitious way. As Kemal passes the years in this same (repetitive) fashion, he muses on the “illusion that is time”.

…there is one sort of time we can call our own, and another – shall we call it “official” time? – that we share with all others.

Explaining his ‘patience’, Kemal tells us that it’s the individual moments, the “present”  of Aristotle that are bound together by time. His growing collection is his attempt to relive these single moments of his life, through memory, scent, and tactile reverie. The names of Proust and Montaigne show up later…

And before the tragic climax, there’s a really lovely scene that…..Fusun has plunged into the Bosphorous and Kemal dives in after her. Fusun plays just out of his reach.

I turned around, and when I saw how far away the shore was, I was afraid. The city surrounded us, the European shore now seeming almost as distant as the Asian shore behind us. There was Tarabya Bay, and the Huzur, the restaurant where we’d eaten on so many occasions, and all the other restaurants lining the shore…the entire city had receded.

It was as if I were looking at a panoramic miniature painting, not just of the Bosphorous and the city, but of the life I’d left behind. It felt like a dream, this sense I had of being far from the city and my own past. To have reached the middle of the city, in the middle of the Bosphorous, to be so distant from everyone else but together with Fusun, felt like the chill of death.

But there’s just not enough of that. He was so close there, and fell short. Finally, Kemal asks Orhan Pamuk to write his story (as foretold in The Engagement Party chapter). The story will be like a catalog of the collection, binding it all together, as time does Aristotle’s individual moments. And so the last sixteen pages of the novel begin with the breezy, “”Hello, this is Orhan Pamuk. With Kemal Bey’s permission…”

Orhan writes that “this is not simply a story of two lovers, but of the entire realm, that is of Istanbul.”

Would that it were so, and that the two stories were better integrated. Alas, there’s more melodrama here than sublime comprehensive storytelling. Somewhere in there, I think that Orhan Pamuk lost his way.

Apparently, Pamuk is working on an actual Museum as described in the novel, having bought a building for that purpose. There is even an admittance ticket printed in the novel (pg 520). Next time I’m passing through the spice bazaar of Istanbul, perhaps I’ll try and find it.

♦♦♦½

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