Friday, February 19, 2010

Orhan Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence

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.


  1. I haven't read the book but I am personally fascinated by the compulsion of collecting. Mea Culpa!

    Today we are totally indebted to those heroic late Victorians who scoured the world, studied every minute of the day, brought back amazing collectibles from Egypt, Africa, Asia, ancient Australia and the Americas etc. Some of those objects might have gone into private collections, I suppose, but it seems that eventually they ended up in large, public museums and galleries - for everyone to see. This must have been personally satisfying to the scholars and wonderful for the nation that gained the treasures.

    If the objects were ancient, perhaps there was noone to complain about foreign scholars taking the objects away. But if the makers of the objects and owners were alive, I imagine they would be very upset indeed.

    Pamuk was very wise. He bought a building and filled it with thousands of objects that illustrate modern Turkey. So he avoided the moral quagmire of taking another nation's treasures. And he didn't have to plunder Turkey's own ancient objects. I too would love to see his Museum of Innocence.

    "These days when in Istanbul Pamuk is under the protection of bodyguards, to protect him from Islamists". What did he do to enfuriate them?

  2. Hi Helen,

    your comment regarding Victorian collectors is very perceptive. Have you read Daniel Kehlman's "Measuring the World" - a novel about Alexander Humboldt and his amazing travels throughout the world during the 19th century, measuring and collecting in an attempt to understand the natural world?
    Pamuk has been too critical of Turkey according to right-wing nationalist. In an interview in a Swiss Newspaper in 2005 he commenented that Turkey needs to face up to its own history, especially to the Armenian genocide and the mistreatment of Kurds. This resulted in Pamuk being brought to court by the state for insulting Turkishness and insulting the Turkish military. The case took one and a half years and though Pamuk eventually won, religious fanatics feel that he should be punished.

  3. I rather wish I hadn't been made a Blog of Note, something I wouldn't even have been aware of if one of the sudden spate of new commenters hadn't told me; it is leading me, when I'm sure I have other things I ought to be doing, all over the place where there are endless interesting, beguiling beautiful, weird and challenging things to read and look at, and this blog fulfils several of those criteria! Very impressive - how do you read so much, think about it so deeply and broadly, write about it so clearly and intelligently and find time to read and follow other people's blogs too?

    Thanks for the reference to Andrew Keene in the comment you left at mine. I had seen him on 'The Virtual Revolution' on BBC2 the previous week, and the book's title, though not his name, had made an impression on me, and it was good to be filled in about it. You don't say to what extent you agree with him about the 'kleptocracy' (- great word!) of the internet.

    I may or may not get around to reading the book, but I will find out more.

    Your reviews are very satisfying. I liked what you said about 'The Children's Book', one of the best reads I've had for a while.

  4. Thanks for your compliments Lucy. I do agree that the internet has changed how we view private property. Many of us, and I include myself, have been opposed to stealing, but now we do it , either taking copywrited images from the net or illegally downloading music and movies.