When the Swedish academy awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to the Turkish writer, Orhan Pamuk—a choice that surprised many at the time—the academy made it a point to note in its citation that
‘in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city [Istanbul] [Pamuk] has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.’
In his Nobel lecture (which he gave in Turkish), Pamuk spoke (in allegorical terms) about the relationship between Eastern and Western civilizations.
In The Museum of Innocence, his first full length novel since his Nobel triumph (at whopping 728 pages it is a weighty work of fiction in more sense than one), Pamuk touches on the themes of the clash of Eastern and Western values, but that is not the main focus of the novel. The Museum of Innocence is a novel about obsession.
The setting of the novel is Istanbul in the mid-1970s. Istanbul and Turkey are still seeped in the traditional values. But times, they are a-changing. At least amongst the rich and the bourgeoisie of Istanbul. Women and men are mixing more freely; women have begun smoking in public places, during functions, and in the presence of family elders; and virginity is no longer the most prized possession of unmarried women. The sexual mores, amongst the bourgeoisie who have travelled to the West, are beginning to relax; however, the enlightened sections are still hesitant to embrace fully the laid-back Western attitude towards premarital sex. Some women might be prepared to go all the way, but only with their betrothed and only after they are sure—as sure as one can be in these matters—that the man intends to marry.
It is in this ambiance, of decadence existing cheek by jowl with poverty, that we meet the narrator and protagonist of The Museum of Innocence, Kemal Basmaci, the scion of a rich industrial family. The year is 1975. Turkey, almost five decades after it became a Republic, is still a poor country, steeped in customs and struggling to find the balance between tradition and modernity. Kemal is a rich man in a poor country. When the novel opens, we meet Kemal with his fiancée, Sibel. Sibel is a modern woman, and in keeping with the moneyed bourgeoisie of Istanbul, she consents to sleep with Kemal even before they are officially engaged. Kemal and Sibel have clandestine sex in his office in the evenings. Then one day, while walking down a street, Sibel notices a Jenny Colon handbag in a shop. Later, intending to give the bag to Sibel as a surprise gift, Kemal walks into the shop where his gaze alights on the young shop-assistant, a young woman named Fusun, who has just turned eighteen. This meeting would change Kemal’s life forever. Fusun, it turns out, is Kemal’s distant cousin. She is born into the poor branch of the family and, when young, used to visit Kemal’s house with her seamstress mother. Kemal’s family, which has never considered Fusun’s family to be in the same league as they, has severed contacts, when, a couple of years earlier, Fusun’s mother, Nesibe, brought shame on the family by allowing her then sixteen year old daughter to take part in a beauty pageant.
Right from the moment he sets his eyes on Fusun, Kemal is totally, hopelessly, irrevocably besotted with her. He cannot get her out of his mind. This obsession would haunt Kemal for the rest of his life and would come to affect not just him but those around him in a way no one could have anticipated. The bag Kemal buys from the shop—Sibel spots it instantly—is a fake Jenny Colon. This gives Kemal an excuse to return to the shop and, over the next one and half month Kemal and Fusun come to enjoy a passionate, if illicit, sexual relationship. Kemal’s family owns an apartment in another part of Isanbul, to which Kemal and Fusun escape in order to enjoy intense afternoons of sex. In the meanwhile Kemal’s family is going ahead full speed with his engagement with Sibel, which takes place in the Hilton. Kemal manoeuvres to invite Fusun’s family to his engagement (you are left wondering to what end, seeing as the wretched man cannot bring himself to break his engagement with Sibel, not after she has gifted him her virginity). If Kemal has plans to carry on carrying on with Fusun—and he obviously has, because in the midst of his engagement party, he finds time to assure Fusun that he would figure something out and begs her to meet him the next day—they are dashed when Fusun fails to come to their secret rendezvous the afternoon after the engagement. After futilely waiting for her for a week, Kemal strikes upon the bright idea of visiting the shop where Fusun works—where he is told that she has left the job—and then to Fusun’s house—where he is informed by the neighbours that the family has upped and left. The news plunges our lovesick hero into the kind of deep depression that, were he in the West, would immediately have brought him to the notice of mental health services and hefty doses of Prozac (or its precursor). However, since this is Turkey, the remedy is three months of quality time with Sibel in the family’s summer house. That regrettably does not bring about any improvement in Kemal Bey’s mood; into the bargain he manages to make Sibel depressed by confessing to her about his infatuation. Sibel may be modern enough to lose her virginity even though she is unmarried, but she is not about to jettison her class snobbery. She is terribly put out that Kemal has fallen for a mere shop girl. She interprets Kemal’s state of mind as infatuation, an illness she hopes can be cured with regular sessions of vigorous sex (with her) and staying away from the object of infatuation. She is wrong. Kemal is not infatuated; he is obsessed. As months go by and there is no change in Kemal’s state of mind, Sibel throws in the towel. She returns the engagement ring and breaks the engagement. The scandal provides enough material for high society gossipers to dine out on for months; the consensus being Sibel is the wronged party. Kemal, now that he is free and single again, renews his search for Fusun and, eventually, with the help of a common friend, traces her to a rundown part of Isanbul where her family has bought a building (not so poor, then). Only to discover that she is now married. In the year since Kemal last saw her, Fusun’s parents—knowing that no decent man would marry their daughter now that her hymen was no longer intact—have married her off to a man named Feridun. Feridun is so impoverished he can’t afford to buy or rent his own house and has moved in with the in-laws. Feridun is a screen-writer, but he fancies himself as a director of movies. He has a master-plan of making an art film in which Fusun is going to be the heroine. Kemal takes to visiting the family two to three times a week as if the prolonged intermission of one year did not happen. The family members too act as if Kemal is nothing more than a rich relation who happens to enjoy their company. Feridun and Fusun are hoping that Kemal would bankroll their film. Kemal is ambivalent about financing a film and letting Fusun act in it; however, sensing that his chances of seeing Fusun on an almost-daily basis would be greatly enhanced if he kept on dangling the carrot of a film in front of them, he keeps on dangling the carrot of a film in front of them. In this manner years pass. Kemal spends long hours at Fusun’s house as her mother natters, Fusun pouts, and her father asks Kemal his views on television programmes Kemal has no interest in. Slowly he loses touch with his former circle of rich friends. From time to time Kemal gets indignant when Fusun drops less than subtle hints that the only reason she is entertaining him is because of her hope that he would finance her husband’s film. He decides not to see her again forever, but returns to her house after two days. He also takes to purloining various objects in Fusun’s house which he thinks have an outside chance of having come in contact with Fusun’s body. The family is fully aware of the kleptomaniacal tendencies of their guest, but they manage to turn a blind eye (probably because Kemal always replaces the stolen article with a costlier version, and, at a later stage, takes to hiding bundles of Turkish currency at various places in the house). These pilfered objects, along with other junk Kemal collects from eccentric collectors of trivia, would go on to form Kemal’s museum of innocence. Kemal eventually does finance Feridun’s film; but it is not the art film Feridun has in mind, and it does not star Fusun. The film is a commercial melodrama which requires the main character to shed a lot of clothes, which, Papatya, a relatively unknown actress chosen for the lead role, willingly does. So taken in is Feridun by Papatya that he starts an affair with her. This gives the patient Kemal the chance to claim back Fusun and relive the glory of the 44days leading to his engagement all those years ago. Fusun’s father conveniently dies around the same time; Fusun divorces Feridun; surely, there is no obstacle in Kemal and Fusun getting together. But then fate has one final twist for Kemal.
The Museum of Innocence is the world’s longest case study of one man’s obsession with a woman. Kemal is bewitched by Fusun on approximately second or third page of the novel. In the next seven hundred pages the reader is repeatedly treated to long and zealous descriptions of Fusun’s spellbinding beauty and Kemal’s enamoredness with her. The problem for the reader is: in the absence of photographic evidence of this great beauty, he is unable to appreciate the life-changing impact Fusun’s pulchritude has on Kemal. Herein lies the other problem of the novel: despite the reams and reams of pages devoted to her, Fusun does not really come alive for the reader. At one point in the novel Kemal, while describing their lovemaking, lets it be known that he swallowed her whole breast (so they can’t be very big), which suggests that sex for them is fantastic—at least it is for him; the reader is not made a privy to Fusun’s thoughts on Kemal as a lover; at another point, the reader is informed that Fusun allows Kemal to enter her from behind (so you guess she is not afraid to try new positions despite being raised in a traditional Muslim country). But beyond these physical descriptions, there is nothing. The reader does not understand what makes Fusun tick. Her inner world remains unavailable to the reader, because Kemal, the verbose and self-centred narrator, is incapable of seeing beyond physical beauty. As a result the narrative becomes monotonous after a while. When you read for the 314th time how awestruck Kemal felt by Fusun’s spellbinding beauty (if you think ‘beauty’ is repeated too often in this review it is nothing as compared to its use in the novel), instead of savouring the delight along with the narrator, the reader is likely to think ‘not this again’; or when Kemal, at periodic intervals, unleashes (with the ruminative relish of an obsessive describing the objects he has to touch or avoid) page-long lists of everyday objects he has stolen from Fusun’s house because they have assumed unparalleled emotional significance for him by dint of theirs having been associated with Fusun in some way, it is about as interesting as reading a grocer’s list. It is difficult to appreciate repetitive descriptions of sensory impact Fusun’s charms come to have on the ever-so-receptive Kemal; they are obviously the result of Fusun’s personal appeal for him, but the reader remains in the dark as to their cause (unless you suppose that Kemal is a shallow person interested only in appearances).
Towards the end of the novel is a postmodern twist: a writer named Orhan Pamuk, whom the reader first meets briefly in Kemal’s engagement party (‘the tiresome Pamuks’) and the ‘23 year old chain-smoking’ Orhan even dances with Fusun. Years later Kemal approaches Orhan Pamuk to write the story of his great love for Fusun and the museum of innocence he is going to create, having taken inspiration from museums created by 17th and 18th century men in France and Italy who were obsessed about leaving behind traces of their lives; and Pamuk tells him that he too was smitten by Fusun. It requires some conceit to appear in your own novel for no other reason than giving a metafictional twist. Unconvincing, to say the least.
Where the novel succeeds is in vividly creating for the reader the world of the bourgeoisie of Istanbul in the 1970s, the world of restaurants where polite waiters politely serve the freshest fish and politely pour the most sumptuous wine for the third generation of patrons dining in the restaurant, the old Ottoman mansions converted into cinema halls as the once-rich families fall on hard times, and the ships and boats sailing down Bosphorus. Pamuk obviously loves the city he was born in, and his love shows in the evocative descriptions.
A word about the translation, by Maureen Freely. The translation is competent but curiously flat. The passion and fire and ardour that Kemal allegedly feels for Fusun, by the time it is translated by Freely, is transmuted into something completely unalloyed to index emotions. I do not know whether the translation does justice to Pamuk’s Turkish which, I remember reading somewhere, is rather convoluted. If that is the case, Freely should be thanked for breaking the original tale into bite-size morsels for the consumption of those (like me) lacking the attention span to read sentences that go on for two pages.
Reading The Museum of Innocence is like wading through a lake of treacle. The overwhelming feeling you are left with as you finally reach the end of this behemoth of a novel is of ennui.