The Museum of Innocence is Orhan Pamuk’s first novel since he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2006. It is set in Istanbul, the city which fuels Pamuk’s imagination, during the 1970’s. Pamuk once again explores the uneasy relationship between east and west in Turkish society from the eyes of Kemal, son of one of the city’s richest families.
In the beginning of the novel Kemal is to be married to Sibel, who also comes from a wealthy family, and so they occupy the niche of the westernized part of society. But this is Turkey in the 1970’s, as western as they try to be sexual etiquette is still very much stalled in the past. Virginity is expected to be part of the bride’s dowry. This all becomes relevant when Kemal begins an affair with Fusun, a distant, younger relative.
The city of Istanbul is a character in the novel as much as any of the other. The decaying old houses contrast with the apartments of the nouveau riche. These apartments become relevant for Kemal as it is there he conducts his affair. It is also there that he begins his collection of things owned by Fusun and so it is the start of the museum.
The seminal scene in the novel is the engagement party. It shapes the rest of Kemal’s life. He and Sibel separate after the engagement party, attempting one last summer idyll. Fusun refuses to spend a lifetime as the other woman and marries someone else. Orhan Pamuk, as he frequently does in his novels, gives himself a cameo in the engagement party.
Kemal is persistent though. He is content to become an old bachelor living with his mother as long as he continues going to have supper with Fusun’s family every day. It never enters his mind that in this world built around unrequited love that Fusun may be ordinary. In fact he sees her less as a person as time passes by and as an ideal. In a world where everything is done with speed, even relationships and love, such a lengthy love affair would seem tedious. But Pamuk never makes it unrealistic or boring and can even make you believe that such a fixation is romantic and not strange.
The novel is about the things Kemal collects. After his reconnection with Fusun he begins collecting mementos. He collects anything from cigarette butts to hair clips without a thought as to why. Because as he says about collecting ;“when the true collector, on whose efforts these museums depend, gathers together his first objects, he almost never asks himself what will be the ultimate fate of his hoard”. This book is a tribute to the power of memory and the intertwining of memories and objects.
The narrative is heavily inspired by Proust and his idea of objects and their connection to memory. Proust is mentioned in the novel by Kemal along with his idea of recoverable memory. Kemal reflects on his own story at times during the book, self analyzing himself as well as time, moments and the way they combine to create the present.
It is obvious that Kemal is an unreliable narrator. The realization that he is telling the story in a skewed perspective allows several different interpretations of the story. Depending on your level of optimism or cynicism, the book can be read as anything from a romantic love story set in a beautiful city to a strange and disquieting obsession of an older man for his past lover or any permutation in between.
A novel such as this does not have a clear cut plot but it is the looseness of the narrative which allows the story to work so well. There can be many interpretations of the story but you don’t have to make any to enjoy the book anyway. The storytelling remains enjoyable and capturing, even without probing too deep.