Orhan Pamuk. The Museum of Innocence. Faber and Faber, London, 2009
What does a writer do when, at quite a young age, he wins the Nobel Prize for Literature? Well, if he is Orhan Pamuk, he writes The Museum of Innocence. I have spent most of my free time during the past week reading this, Pamuk’s newest novel and his first since winning the Prize.
At one level it is a fairly straightforward love story, a tale of rich, 35 year old, aristocratic Kemal’s obsessive love for 18-year-old Küsun in Istanbul during the mid-seventies. He sacrifices his engagement to a wealthy beauty, and consequently his reputation in upper-class society, in order to pursue his protracted and unusual courtship of his beloved. Along the way he secretes thousands of objects that Küsun once touched, such as 4,213 cigarette butts, in order to build his Museum of Innocence. By the end of the book Kemal has amassed a huge number of items, has visited 5,723 museums around the world and is about to open his own real Museum of Innocence, dedicated to his beloved Fasün.
But at another level the book forms a dissection of the two Turkeys – on the one hand the Turkey of the westernized and secularized, wealthy and European oriented elite and on the other hand the traditional and religious, poor and “headscarfed” Turkey. Many western history books refer to Istanbul (or Constantinople) as a bridge between east and west, but Pamuk’s Istanbul is the point at which modern Turkey and traditional Turkey encounter each other. These days when in Istanbul Pamuk is under the protection of bodyguards, to protect him from Islamists, but in The Museum of Innocence he exposes the terrible hypocrisies and snobbery that underlie the society of the city’s wealthy, westernized elite. He is a brave man indeed, as well as a masterful storyteller. As always, Pamuk writes with painterly detail of his beloved Istanbul.
At a third level the book can be read as a meditation on the compulsion of collecting and, even, on the act of writing itself. For what is writing fiction but an obsessive collecting and rearrangement of memories. The story is filled with intertextual references to the works of some of Pamuk’s favourite European authors: Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Nabokov and, above all, Proust. It could easily have been entitled In Remembrance of Things Past. It also contains self-referentiality. The key chapter falls at about one third of the way through the novel and consists of a long description of an engagement party. This is the hinge upon which the narrative hangs. Many characters, described in lavish and vivid detail, populate the party. One minor character is a young introvert called Orhan Pamuk. He reappears hundreds of pages and decades later as a famous novelist and we discover the protagonist, Kemal, has commissioned Pamuk to write a catalogue for his museum, the book that we are now reading.
The Joyce of Istanbul and the Proust of Turkish memory, Pamuk has assembled hundreds of corners and textures and scents and sounds and characters of his home city and these are remembered, savoured and distilled in words – collected, rearranged and exhibited. The novel contains a map that indicates where the Museum of Innocence can be found. Apparently Pamuk has really bought a building and filled it with thousands of objects that illustrate modern Turkey. Luckily for me I will be visiting Istanbul this coming May. The Museum of Innocence will be my first stop.