Book Quote:

“ I would go to the Merhamet Apartments, and, reflecting upon the happy hours Fusun and I had spent there, I would lose myself in daydreams, admiring my slowly growing “collection” with ever renewed wonder. As these objects accumulated, so did the manifest intensity of my love. Sometimes I would see them not as mementos of the blissful hours but as the tangible precious debris of the storm raging in my soul. ”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (DEC 14, 2009)

“Irresponsible, spoiled and bourgeois.” One of the characters in The Musuem of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk’s new novel, uses these labels to describe a segment of Istanbul’s young adults. These same descriptors could specifically apply to 30-year-old Kemal, the novel’s protagonist. Kemal, part of Istanbul’s upper class, spends his time managing a portion of the family business. He has the privilege of an education in America and as the novel opens, is about to be engaged to Sibel, the daughter of another wealthy family in the city. It’s slated to be a marriage between equals.

One day, Sibel’s eye catches a designer purse in a local shopping boutique and later, Kemal decides to buy it as a surprise for his soon-to-be fiancée. It is here that he meets 18-year-old Füsun—a distant cousin who will become the obsession of his life. Over the following weeks, the two often meet at an apartment owned by Kemal’s family, which now lies largely abandoned. Füsun gives up her virginity to Kemal and their lovemaking extends over many lazy afternoons. All this time Füsun is torn knowing that she will eventually lose Kemal to Sibel. Nevertheless she hopes the power of their love will be enough for Kemal to stop his upcoming engagement to Sibel.

That doesn’t happen however and Kemal and Sibel get engaged in a lavish ceremony at the Hilton in Istanbul. Istanbul’s crème de la crème attend and Füsun is crushed. At this point, selfishly, Kemal still believes he can have it all—a beautiful wife in Sibel and a mistress on the side.

Having waited long enough for Kemal to come around, however, Füsun decides to call it quits and leaves him hanging. Totally devastated, Kemal ends up breaking off his engagement to Sibel—but this act turns out to be a tad late. When after many months, Kemal does run into Füsun in one of Istanbul’s poorer neighborhoods, she is married to a struggling screenwriter Feridun. Now Kemal doesn’t know of any way to stay close to Füsun except by offering to finance one of Feridun’s scripts and in doing so, turning Füsun into a star. Day after day, month after month, for seven years, Kemal visits the Keskin family in their tiny apartment. He shares meals with them and lives on the tiniest slivers of hope that Füsun might some day actually be his.

Over the years, Kemal slowly collects small items that form part of a big collection—these are all items touched by Füsun or connected to her in some way. It is hard to write much more about the story without giving it all away but doing so wouldn’t dilute the fun either. For early on in the story, you can see that this just might turn out to be a modern-day version of Laila-Majnu the story of the ill-fated lovers of Arabia.

The Museum of Innocence is more than just a love story however. In its many layers, it explores various aspects of Turkish life and the country’s history. Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk has always used his work to showcase a Turkey caught between tradition and Western values. In his earlier novel, Snow, he used the headscarf as a motif for this struggle with change. Here, too, his characters are caught in the tide. Kemal’s young friends all consider themselves “modern” and alcohol flows freely at their parties. They are even beginning to explore intimacy before marriage. Still it is mostly understood that a woman gives up her virginity only to a man she knows for sure, she will marry. This problem haunts Sibel as she decides whether or not to break off her engagement to her straying fiancé. “Sibel knew full well that no matter how high she held her head, no matter how “European” her friends were in their outlook, this affair would not be seen as a love story if we did not marry. It would become the story of a woman whose honor had been stained,” Kemal recounts.

The change that Turkey has to grapple with can be found in the most unexpected places. For example, towards the beginning of the novel, Kemal’s friend Zaim launches a new soda called Meltem. To attract the urban market, he uses a leggy German model to market the product. After a few years though, as the product loses its cachet with the urban rich, Zaim has to rely on a Turkish film actress who can sell the product to the “provincial masses.” This gradual falling out of Meltem to be replaced by Coke and Pepsi is one change that creeps up slowly but is perhaps indicative of the country’s larger struggles with the impact of globalization.

The Museum of Innocence starts off in the early 70s and the political upheaval of the 70s and 80s simmers in the background. That Kemal chooses not to dwell on this discontent too much shows not just how his obsession with Füsun takes precedent over everything else but how a rich kid like him can afford to live comfortably above it all. “I have no desire to interrupt my story with descriptions of the street clashes between fervent nationalists and fervent communists at that time, except to say what we were witnessing was an extension of the Cold War,” Kemal says.

As the story begins, as Kemal goes out with both Sibel and Füsun, he emerges as a selfish and vain person, someone the reader cannot immediately empathize with. Even at his engagement party, Kemal looks forward to “partaking of all the pleasures of a happy home life with a beautiful, sensible, well-educated woman, and at the same time enjoying the pleasures of an alluring and wild young girl—all this while I was still in my thirties, having scarcely suffered for it, or paid a price.” It is to Pamuk’s credit that as the story goes on, Kemal matures into a tragic character, someone the reader can feel sorry for.

Pamuk’s new novel describes many of the neighborhoods—Beyoglu, Taksim, Tophane, Fatih, Edirnekapi—he visits in his wonderful non-fiction work, Istanbul: Memories and the City. Especially as Kemal visits with the Keskin family night after night for dinner, he makes his way around Istanbul’s poorer neighborhoods and Pamuk beautifully describes these.

Pamuk has always been a fan of well-honed literary devices and here he narrates Kemal’s story through the individual items in his collection of everyday objects stored at the Museum of Innocence. Many a chapter ends with the cataloging of seemingly mundane objects—which nevertheless have some resonance for Kemal. “I have here the clock, and these matchsticks and matchbooks, because the display suggests how I spent the slow ten or fifteen minutes it took me to accept that Füsun was not coming that day,” Pamuk writes in one such instance.

These objects are as disparate as they can get but they are all bound by one unifying thread—they are all touched by Füsun or somehow associated with her. A quince grater, a vast collection of cigarette stubs, a lost earring, a ticket to a movie—together they paint a complete set of memories for the lovelorn Kemal. This endless cataloging of objects can start to wear down on the reader occasionally but Pamuk is skilful enough to know just when to accelerate the pace a tad. Besides, one realizes, love is full of mundane moments mixed in with the sublime.

As Kemal spends endless hours in the Merhamet Apartments with his collection, wallowing in his memories, it becomes obvious that while the objects offer him some measure of relief, they also stifle him in many ways. After all, no collection of objects can really substitute for the warm touch of a loved one. Kemal seeks solace from the fact that even if they might not be the real thing, from their association with his lover, they are enough to offer some kind of daily sustenance.

The Museum of Innocence reminds us that unlike love, which can be ephemeral, objects can be more easily possessed. And, when all else fails, the memories they evoke can be enough to last an anguished lifetime. (Translated by Maureen Freely.)

AMAZON READER RATING: from 64 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf; 1 edition (October 20, 2009)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte

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December 14, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , , ,  Â· Posted in: 2009 Favorites, Middle East, Nobel Prize for Literature, Translated, Turkey, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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