The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk, Faber and Faber, 533pp, £18.99
I love Orhan Pamuk. I’ve always enjoyed the sense he gives in his writings of a Turkey pulled between an admiration of the West, pride in its own faded Ottoman imperial grandeur, and a fondness for the often shabby, but familiar, reality of its present day. Pamuk is not quite a novelist who manages to encompass every aspect of Turkey, its every life – you find nothing in his work of the hard lot of the Anatolian peasant, of the smaller towns of the Mediterranean littoral so familiar to the average tourist, and there are only passing moments with the ordinary Turk such as those found in the interminable, long-distance, intercity bus journeys that make up the bulk of his 1994 novel The New Life (Yeni Hayat). His protagonists are generally too like Pamuk himself, and the main male character of the The Museum of Innocence, the industrialist’s son Kemal Bey, fits this pattern, belonging to the educated, western-leaning intellectual elite found in Turkey’s great cities of Istanbul and Ankara.
The Museum of Innocence breaks no new ground for Pamuk: for those who love him, it is a chance to revisit those minutely-observed chronicles of a particular milieu of Turkish social life, and to track the gradual changes to the urban and social fabric of Istanbul over the years. In simple terms it is a story of love requited, and then unrequited, between a rich member of Istanbul’s cosmopolitan elite, Kemal Bey, and a poorer cousin of his, Füsun. Kemal is expected, through the weight of his family’s and society’s expectations, to make a proper match for himself, and ends up engaged to the French lycée-educated Sibel, a lover of the latest Parisian fashions. In Turkish terms she is a modern woman – premarital sex is permitted – but of course on the understanding that Kemal will eventually marry her. Kemal, however, develops an obsessive love for Füsun, daughter of an ‘Aunt’ of Kemal’s who works as a seamstress for the great houses of Istanbul; much younger than Kemal, she is not at all a suitable match for a member of the wealthy class whose habits, haunts, smart restaurants, holidays and relationship to the rest of Turkish society are so lovingly detailed by Pamuk.
The story itself is melodrama, and despite a few moments of psychological acuity, it is less a convincing love story and more an exploration of what love between a man and woman can mean in a country such as Turkey. As Kemal’s mother declares to him:
‘In a country where men and women can’t be together socially, where they can’t see each other or even have a conversation, there’s no such thing as love.’
Throughout Pamuk explores a range of relationships possible in such a society which might be considered love, opening with Kemal’s carefree attitude towards sex with both his fiancée and Füsun, the recourse to the high-class brothels of Istanbul of several of his elite friends, the relationship between his parents, with its unspoken secrets of infidelity, as well as Füsun’s marriage to a penniless, aspirant film director.
Much of the plot – Füsun’s refusal to see Kemal after he appears to go through with his engagement, and the years-long quest to find her that this leads to – sets up an excuse for Kemal to found the ‘Museum’ of the title. This is an obsessive collection of those fleetingly-touched and tangential objects which Füsun has come into contact with: the half-smoked cigarette butts, the ice-cream containers, soda cans, her lipstick; the ephemera we never expect to survive. To Kemal Istanbul itself acts as a memorial of his love for Füsun, and in his Museum, which he conceives of as a real place, he one day expects to receive visitors. For this reason the reader is treated to his reflections after he travels the world visiting other museums of ephemera such as the Museu Frederic Marès in Barcelona:
‘Perusing its romantic assortment of barrettes, pins, earrings, playing cards, keys, fans, perfume bottles, handkerchiefs, brooches, necklaces, handbags, and bracelets, [only then] did I realize at last what I could do with Füsun’s things.’
Throughout the novel we are treated to similar reflections on the nature of collecting. The chapter ‘4,213 Cigarette Stubs’, in which each stub is individually labelled with the date and place where Füsun smoked it, is a literary evocation of the same idea of obsessive collecting behind Damien Hirst’s The Abyss, his collection of fag butts displayed in a setting like a museum case which controversially sold for £1.8m in 2008.
It is also part of the function of the novel as a whole to act as a sort of Museum. As is clear when the ‘real’ novelist, Orhan Pamuk himself, enters the text, first as an observer and then as a chronicler of Kemal and Füsun’s story, that the work takes an ever more conscious turn into those narrative tricks so beloved of an older generation of European novelists such as Italo Calvino, with their postmodern intertexuality. This is not Pamuk’s first foray into such territory. There has always been something of the tricksy, self-aware narrator in his works; but here it strikes a false note, particularly when combined with a contrived love-story. The whole leaves the reader less than satisfied. It works far better in an earlier work of his The Black Book (Kara Kitap), with its detective-story plot and fascination by mystical signs and religious symbols.
So much for what I didn’t care for. What The Museum of Innocence does provide – and it is a pleasure akin to Pamuk’s non-fictional memoir Istanbul, a portrait of his mixed feelings towards the faded imperial past of Turkey’s former Ottoman capital – is the almost tangible sense of sadness which pervades his work, as well as its richly textured portrait of a kind of Turkish social life. It is a portrait obsessed with the fine detail of the past: the simit rolls sold on the streets of Istanbul, the types of commercial product available, the television programmes to be seen on the state broadcaster TRT in the 1970s, the sense of cultural cringe and excitement when a German model, Inge, appears in a campaign for an indigenous Turkish soft drink. Pamuk has been writing exactly this history of Turkey throughout his works – a history of the gestures, the words, the films, and the popular culture enjoyed by its people, and tracking the changes in behaviour over time:
‘The anxious adherence to the forms of deference that we associate with traditional families – sitting straight and never crossing one’s legs or smoking or drinking in front of one’s father – had over time slowly disappeared.’
But what is curious about such a book is the audience it presupposes. Several Turkish diplomats I knew when I was living in Jordan – themselves products of the educated Westernised elite – were dismissive when I mentioned to them my enjoyment of Pamuk’s earlier work. To them there was something unTurkish about him, and this may be partly from the positions he has taken in Turkey’s identity wars; neither uncritically in favour of the secular state, nor a supporter of the Islamist trend, he famously appeared in court on charges of lèsemajesté for suggesting that Turkey had indeed been responsible for an Armenian genocide. They made an even more startling claim about him: that his Turkish was so convoluted that many Turks preferred to read him in English translation, adding to their sense of him as more a European than a Turk. Certainly throughout the work there is always a sense that he is writing in an explanatory mode for an audience outside Turkey, for instance on several occasions Kemal thinks aloud about the meaning of his frequent visits over many years to visit his beloved Füsun and her husband, both of whom live at home with Füsun’s parents, the Keskins. To a Turk, I presume, the following comment would have been unnecessary, but it is to explain to an international audience the oddness of Kemal’s behaviour and the ability of all the Keskins not to make explicit its ambiguities. All concerned agreed simply to regard him as ‘sitting together’ with the family:
‘Had we been living in a modern Western society with more candid relations between men and women, and with the sexes not living in separate realms, my going to the Keskin household four or five times a week would, of course, force everyone eventually to accept that I was coming to see Füsun … and so in such a country my visits could never be so frequent.’
When the story ends in eventual tragedy it is also to the comforts of a European sensibility that Kemal turns: ‘I sought consolation in Proust and Montaigne’.
So it is a novel written for us, to explain something of a country known to most Europeans only in stereotypes. That is the great service Pamuk has done throughout his writings.