Book Review: The Museum of Innocence

Unless one were to cheat and do quick research into the content’s reality in the fictional novel, The Museum of Innocence (Masumiyet Müzesi) by Orhan Pamuk, it would take reading 700 pages to return to the ambiguous conclusion of, maybe? Although that middle ground of uncertainty is troubling, that is the skill to which the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature winner wrote his premier post-laureate bestseller.

In a page out of the frame narratives of the accomplished historical fiction writers, Pamuk’s center of gravity in Innocence lies in binaries: fiction v. reality, east v. west, passion v. pain, etc. The bulk of the novel takes place in Istanbul from 1975 to 1984 following the first-person accounts of Kemal Bey and his love/obsession over Füsun. In short, after taking Füsun’s virginity and starting an affair behind his fiancé’s back, Kemal became obsessed with Füsun, which was turned into torture after Füsun ghosted him following his engagement party. After a year (about 120 pages) of Kemal souring his personal and professional relationships because of his addiction to her memory, they are grimly reunited again, but with Füsun now married to a fat film director. To get back into her life, Kemal, a businessman with a healthy profit, agreed to finance her husband’s “art film” that would star Füsun.

           

Aile Serefi (1976)

Taking a detour into the Turkish film industry of the late 1970s, the Yeşilçam era was coming to an end due to increasing political violence and competition of television. The era was dominated by blockbuster stars and higher quality films over time, which is the world into which Kemal, Füsun, and her husband embedded themselves: upper class film stars dining at trendy industry spots in the Beyoğlu district. For half a dozen years (a couple hundred pages), Kemal performs a balancing act of keeping Füsun in limbo between domesticity and industry gossip by making their presence known at Füsun’s family house and industry dinners. This took a strain over time as Füsun never became a film star. And like the Yeşilçam era coming to an end at this time, Füsun’s loveless marriage tuckered out. Thereafter, Füsun opened up the way for Kemal’s engagement to her. But upon being engaged and taking a road trip to Paris, the couple get into a car crash killing Füsun and sending Kemal into a months-long coma. After becoming coherent again, and in order to maintain his fragile sanity, Kemal put the rest of life’s work into building a museum of pride over his love with Füsun that includes all the objects that remind Kemal of her.

And this is where, at the final chapter (83, page 702 in the English-language paperback) it takes a meta-turn that sustains the action beyond its traditionally designated ending point with the death of the main love interest. The narrator reveals that he employed the family-friend Orhan Pamuk to tell the story of Füsun and his love for her, which was certainly accomplished in great detail.

In describing the reasons for the creation of the museum, Kemal via Pamuk describes visiting many thousands of museums (mostly in Europe and the U.S.) in his lifetime, coming to the conclusion that these museums of the West were about having pride in something enough to adorn it behind a glass case forever. And so Kemal chooses his obsessive love for Füsun to be the thing to have pride for, which brought him more pain in this life than anything.

          

Ishtar Gate in the Pergamon Museum

On a deeper level, as Pamuk readers learn early on, is his consistent literary theme of East and West, in this case Turkey/Istanbul and France/Europe. In my (westernized) reading before the climax, I found that Kemal’s obsession with and display of Füsun’s hyper-romanticized and timeless objects akin to European museum’s obsessions with historical pan-Asian objects from the Levant to the Mekong. Whether it’s the Ishtar Gate in Berlin or the Code of Hammurabi at the Louvre, European excavations and colonial conquests from the 18th century onwards placed importance on certain objects with highly-charged meaning that were proudly put on display in prominent cities. Although the comparison is not perfect, it becomes more relevant when Pamuk describes his reasons for placing a westernized museum-like pride on certain objects.

Reading through The Museum of Innocence comes with its difficulties because of the length of nearly singular subject matter but overall works in conveying to the reader how uncomfortable Kemal was on a day to day basis with this obsession. If you were also uncomfortable with reading hundreds of pages about the same material, good.

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