The Museum of Innocence

By Orhan Pamuk

If nothing else you have to admire the ambition of Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence, a big novel inquiring into the nature of love, memory, and happiness. Most of us feel that these are the sort of important questions great novelists are supposed to write about, even if the answers end up being a bit messy.

The story begins on “Monday, May 26, 1975 at about a quarter to three,” and the happiest moment in Kemal’s life: a sweaty afternoon tryst with an 18-year-old beauty named Fusun who also happens to be a distant relation. Alas for the course of true love, Kemal is already engaged to be married – which, he has to point out, still means something in Istanbul. His desires thwarted, his love for Fusun turns into a painful, enduring obsession that can only be assuaged by collecting various objects that remind him of her presence. Before long obsession turns into addiction and even fetish as he fills an apartment with household items touched by Fusun that he takes to rubbing on his body and sticking in his mouth in order to find “relief” from his heartsickness (one wonders if “release” might have been a better translation). “I may not have ‘won’ the woman I love so obsessively,” he explains, speaking of matchboxes that still carry the scent of Fusun’s hands, “but it cheered me to have broken off a piece of her, however small.” Which should give you some idea of where things are headed.

Properly catalogued and displayed, these objects – including 4, 213 of Fusun’s cigarette butts, “artifacts of singular intimacy” – will come to constitute the Museum of Innocence for which this book has been prepared as an introduction. Kemal is, of course, insane, but since he’s also fantastically rich Fusun’s remarkably tolerant parents and worthless husband tend to accept him as a besotted eccentric with sticky fingers. Sadly, at least for Fusun, he is also something more disturbing, a jealous and possessive figure akin to Fowles’ Collector. That Kemal doesn’t recognize this isn’t surprising given the level of his self-pity and self-absorption, but he gives the game away in dozens of compulsive neurotic gestures. That it’s hard for us to see him as being such a monster is in part due to the eloquence of his special pleading (his story is narrated by another distant relation who once danced with Fusun, the acclaimed novelist Orhan Pamuk injecting himself into the narrative) and perhaps a function of our awareness that love is a kind of addiction and disease of the mind. We expect lovers to be obsessed by the objects of their affection.

Unfortunately, an object – albeit a delightfully warm and scented one – is all Fusun is to Kemal. His love is narcissistic, even to the point of experiencing one of his life’s “most profoundly spiritual moments” standing in front of a bathroom mirror and believing that “I was she.” He also doesn’t care who or what has to be sacrificed on the altar of his own happiness, which is what the Museum finally turns out to be. Fusun’s happiness is never even considered, just as her “innocence” (or virginity) is a necessary fiction Kemal is invested in, without which he wouldn’t even be able to love her. For all his wealth and sophistication he is very much a man of his place and time.

That place and time will be familiar to readers already acquainted with Pamuk and his foregrounding of the conflict between eastern and modern, “European” values, and his lush evocation of Istanbul. Kemal remarks at one point that visitors to the Museum will understand his “is not simply a story of lovers, but of the entire realm.” The full texture of city life – the sound of a tanker’s horn on the Bosphorus, the jarring rides over cobblestone streets, the “familiar Istanbul smell of sea and moss, pigeon droppings, coal smoke, car exhaust, and linden blossoms” – is woven into nearly every page.

This very density, however, like the intensity of Kemal’s obsession, can turn in on itself, creating an environment poisonous and corrupting. Istanbul is a magical city but also a combustible place of violence and repression, from the armed gangs roaming the streets to the baffling networks of family relations and cruel social codes. The resulting pressure turns The Museum of Innocence away from being a tale of two lovers and their pursuit of happiness into a tragedy of perversity and despair. Camouflaged in the language of romance, with its kisses that “delivered us beyond the pleasures of flesh and sexual bliss,” “suggesting a paradise few will ever know in this life,” it is a rich and revealing novel of psychological horror.

Review first published in the Toronto Star November 1, 2009.

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