Thursday, January 13, 2011

Museum of Innocence

Museum of Innocence by Orham Pamuk was published in paperback in 2009 and I have to confess I initially dodged it as not only was I going to be facing into 700 plus pages but the blurb indicated that I would be reading a classic love story - boy meets girl, crisis  and loss, boy regains girl - which did not appeal.   But then I reconsidered if only because as a Nobel Laureate of particular distinction, Pamuk could never bore and indeed this book is no conventional social comedy but as Pamuk says 'nor simply a story of lovers, but of the  entire realm, that is, of Istanbul'.
The narrative concerns a thirty year old Istanbulli, Kemal, a member of a socially elite, bourgeois set, who is about to become engaged, and on a visit to a boutique to buy his fiancee, Sibil, a gift, encounters a distant cousin, Fusun, working there and is immediately overcome and completely enthralled by her.   He begins a relationship despite his existing commitment to Sibil and the forthcoming big social event of his Engagement Party.   The Party is the pivotal chapter in the book and it is subsequent to this that Kemal's obsession with Fusun begins.
This obsession is to drive Kemal for years and in the course of it he loses the shape of his life, discards his friends and social set and begins a collection of memorabilia of his love to put in a museum he wants to create,  amassing anything of Fusun's - from panties to cigarette butts.   In the course of this, Pamuk gives us a wonderful minor dissertation on the role and purpose of museums and the art of collecting.
For a period, Kemal is separated from Fusun during which time she marries an aspiring film director and returns to live with her parents.   Kemal visits them almost nightly and, indeed, remarks that 'according to my notes, during the 409 weeks that my story will now describe, I went there for supper 1,593 times' - all under the guise of maintaining family connections as she was his cousin.
During the period of separation, Kemal wanders through Istanbul and Pamuk gives us the most stunning description of a city superior to the description of any city in any novel I have read.   He brings alive the ships on the Bosporus, the light on the water, the mosques and old streets of Istanbul until it has the familiarity of a favourite local town.   
Even more fascinating he describes the lives and mores of the inhabitants.   Kemal's people are not religious adhering to their love of Ataturk and his secular reforms but at the same time maintaining certain beliefs and traditions.   The issue of virginity at the time in 1975 is a particularly thorny one.   The question of sex is complicated.   Sibil - and, indeed, Fusun - give themselves to Kemal but in the belief and trust that he will honour their commitment with marriage.   Otherwise, a girl is considered 'spoiled goods'.    Pamuk gives us a whole chapter on the issue which bears ressemblance to Ireland in the fifties!
Despite this and because maybe of the influence of the cinema and television - both of which are extremely popular despite the television having only one channel - the wealthy elite aspire to Western fashions, behaviour and values.   Girls who wear head scarfs for religious reasons are looked down on.   Kemal also remarks that he has never seen two people kissing except on the screen!
Politics is largely eschewed despite the fact that the novel begins in 1975 some four years after the Coup and their lives are controlled by curfews and other restrictions.   There are street battles frequently taking place between nationalists and communists but these are largely ignored though Kemal does refer to two friends who took politics seriously and ended up tortured in gaol for their effrontery.
This is a riveting novel and I became obsessed with Kemal's obsession persisting with little effort to the end of 728 pages where he  tells us 'let everyone know, I lived a very happy life'!   Pamuk writes with assurance and style.    He doesn’t write with passion though he is passionate about Istanbul but rather he brings an objective reality to his text and a distilled beauty of language.   His construction is faultless and the subtleties of emotions and thought are expertly rendered by his translator, Maureen Freely.   By placing his protagonist amongst the wealthy elite of Istanbul, most of whom work for family concerns, he gives both himself and Kemal the latitude to wander Istanbul and indulge his obsession unhampered by financial or tedious domestic problems.   It is an extraordinary book, almost a psychological case study, that I urge you not to ignore.

1 comment:

  1. had looked at this last week in bookshop and nearly bought it - sounds amazing so next time will buy it! mary