‘The Museum of Innocence’ by Orhan Pamuk

The Museum of Innocence book coverPamuk’s The Museum of Innocence [London: Faber & Faber, 2010, translated by Maureen Freely] is another of his intense novels which bring out the contrast between Western and more traditional Turkish values. Like Snow, it is a story of a doomed love affair that, in this case, is played out in the Istanbul of the last quarter of the 20th century.

The wealthy families are often secular and patronising of the ‘headscarf-wearing’, Islamist less well-off but are still in the grip of more traditional values, not least the respect for a woman’s virginity and the contemptuous way anyone is regarded who has lost it to a man who is not just about to marry them. Thus, the opening chapter recounting what the narrator calls the ‘happiest moment of his life’, making love to a poor, distant relative, a shop girl, when he is about to become engaged to a society beauty, is shocking and sows the seeds of the obsession that will dominate the rest of his life.

Kemal is thirty and Füsun only eighteen. They continue to meet clandestinely and make love in the afternoons. His obsession means that he cannot bring himself to stop seeing her and the affair passes the point of no return when she asks what is to become of them as a couple. Füsun has fallen in love with him but he feels unable to break off his engagement to Sibel. The crisis breaks when Kemal perversely invites Füsun to his big engagement party at the Hilton. She comes with her parents and he realises he is pathologically jealous of everyone who pays attention to her. Seeing that Kemal has gone through with his engagement, Füsun ‘disappears’. Sibel does try hard to restore Kemal’s good humour and, indeed, his health and sacrifices her own virginity to her new fiancé, but he has eventually to break off his engagement, doing her reputation great damage. Kemal then devotes himself to finding Füsun and discovers she has been married off to a screen writer and that the couple live with her parents. Since they are indeed relatives, Kemal spends the next eight years visiting his relatives several times a week and accumulating any and every memento of the young woman, material which will grow to the point that he will create a museum telling and illustrating her life and his love for her.

The background to the story is the city of Istanbul as it passes through ongoing Westernisation and more than one military coup. The life in summer villas overlooking the Bosporus which literally and psychologically divides Istanbul between Europe and Asia; the restaurants that host society and the cinemas that show ‘sophisticated’ American films and cheap, romantic Turkish ones, are all described in almost Proustian detail and the story is carried on to its, fascinating post-modern conclusion. The Museum of Innocence is a powerful family saga that makes compelling reading: in its way as immensely readable as the other two books of this author I have read; Snow, and My Name is Red. I am going to be compelled to read more by this Nobel Laureate.

[Look out for my take on Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1 before the Man Booker judges decide.  Thank goodness I’m not reading the Spanish edition which runs to an extra 90 pages!]

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