Commentary Magazine

The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk

The Museum of Innocence
By Orhan Pamuk
Knopf, 560 pages

In The Age of Innocence (1920), Edith Wharton’s novel of “Old New York,” two lovers arrange a secret meeting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, then just founded. As they peruse the newly established antiquities collections, one remarks:

It seems cruel?.?.?.?that after a while nothing matters?.?.?.?any more than these little things, that used to be necessary and important to forgotten people, and now have to be guessed at under a magnifying glass and labeled: “Use unknown.”

The irony, of which Wharton’s lovers are only half-aware, is that they—and the society they inhabit—are on the cusp of becoming another “forgotten people.” All the customs and traditions of the old aristocracy, which demand the lovers’ final separation, will be unfathomable just a generation hence. As Wharton herself would write to Henry James, lamenting the vanished world of 1870s New York, “Everything that used to form the fabric of our daily life has been torn in shreds, trampled on, destroyed; and hundreds of little incidents, habits, traditions, which, when I began to record my past, seemed too insignificant to set down, have acquired the historical importance of fragments of dress and furniture dug up in a Babylonian tomb.”

This, in sum, is the theme of The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk’s first novel since winning the Nobel Prize in literature in 2006. So distraught is the novel’s narrator, the dolorous Kemal, at losing the city of his youth—1970s Istanbul—that he starts a collection of relics and everyday objects destined for the museum of the book’s title. “Having become—with the passage of time—an anthropologist of my own experience,” he writes, “I have no wish to disparage those obsessive souls who bring back crockery, artifacts, and utensils from distant lands and put them on display for us, the better to understand the lives of others and our own.” Indeed, the myriad ephemera of his past—his lover’s earrings, torn ticket stubs, a quince grinder—each featured in one of the book’s 83 chapters, come to seem to him like “irreplaceable mementos of a lost world.”

It’s no surprise that The Museum of Innocence is a story about looking back. Like Wharton, who left America for Paris in 1911, Pamuk is estranged from his native country. In June 2005, Pamuk was charged by the Turkish government with “insulting Turkishness” for mentioning the Armenian genocide of 1915 in an interview with a Swiss newspaper. The charges were ultimately dropped, but facing death threats, Pamuk left Istanbul for New York, where he is a visiting professor at Columbia University. (Pamuk’s fears were not unfounded: in January 2007, Hrant Dink, a friend and fellow writer, was gunned down by a Turkish nationalist for discussing the Armenian genocide.)

Since then, Pamuk’s work has become ever more fixated on the past, suffused with hüzün (“melancholic introspection”) and brimming with passages about Istanbul as it once was. At times, The Museum of Innocence reads almost as disguised autobiography, with Pamuk making cameo appearances throughout the novel. (Further collapsing the wall between reality and fiction, Pamuk is converting a house in Istanbul into an actual museum featuring objects from the novel, to open later this year.) Kemal, the would-be curator, is the scion of a prominent family in the already waning days of the Istanbul bourgeoisie, a closely knit group of old families besieged by “new money” from the provinces. He has recently made the “perfect match” to a beautiful society girl, when his cousin, a “despised poor relation,” unexpectedly reappears, and the two fall deeply in love. (This, of course, is also the plot of The Age of Innocence.)

Kemal’s friends, all children of wealthy families (although that wealth is much eroded), spend their time driving their fathers’ cars around, dancing in night clubs, and chattering about skiing trips and the latest Grace Kelly movie. Despite the turmoil occurring all around them—government-imposed curfews, riots, and bombings—they are politically unengaged. “I have no desire to interrupt my story with descriptions of the street clashes between the fervent nationalists and fervent communists at that time,” Kemal writes in a characteristic aside, “except to say what we were witnessing was an extension of the Cold War.” Their main object, instead, is the accumulation of Western status symbols: fake Marlboros (“produced in the Socialist Republic of Bulgaria and smuggled into Turkey on ships and fishing boats”), champagne, and designer handbags. They argue over who had the first transistor radio or electric blender in Turkey, although most of these relics from the West sit broken on shelves, as there are no spare parts available.

Behind this consumerist zeal is the aspiration to be “free and modern”—that is, Western. One character disdains anything “too à la Turca” or characteristic of the despised “parvenus from the provinces.” But securing the trappings of Western sophistication and freedom, Kemal finds, proves much easier than shedding one’s Turkish identity—-especially when it comes to relations between men and women.

In a chapter titled “A Few Unpalatable Anthropological Truths,” Kemal explains the then regnant code of virginity in Turkey. “Virginity was still regarded as a treasure that young girls should protect until the day they married,” he writes, but “following the drive to Westernize and modernize, and (even more significantly) the haste to urbanize, it became common practice for girls to defer marriage until they were older, and the practical value of this treasure began to decline in certain parts of Istanbul.” Thus, among the fashionable elite, it became acceptable for an unmarried man and woman to sleep together, as Kemal and his fiancée Sibel do, but only if they are engaged or have otherwise publicly shown themselves to be “destined for marriage.”

This claim to sexual emancipation is only a pretense, however. The Istanbul of the 1970s remains intensely prudish: Kemal, a man in his 30s, has never seen a kiss offscreen in his homeland. While he and Sibel pride themselves on being “modern” enough to “disregard tradition,” both understand the unspoken assumption behind their secret meetings in Kemal’s office: that Kemal will do the honorable thing and marry her in return for her virginity. For women who trust too freely, the penalties range from “mere ostracism to ritual murder.”

Kemal and his fellow Turks long for Western freedom even as they are repulsed by it. To be Western, Kemal tells Sibel, is to be “free to make love and be as happy as it is promised one in heaven,” no longer to “agonize over love and suffer sexual pain.” It is to be “beyond sin and guilt.” Yet, even as he and his male friends fantasize about “women willing to sleep with a man just for the fun of it,” they are suspicious of such freedom from all restraint, of the notion that sex can ever be straightforward or purely a matter of pleasure.

Kemal knows that the West is more than just the seductive, heedless world depicted in Hollywood movies and advertising campaigns. It is also, as Pamuk has written elsewhere, “a system of free speech, democracy, egalitarianism and respect for the people’s rights and dignity.” It represents a veritable treasure-house of learning. When Kemal reflects on his experience, it is to Western novelists—Proust, Nabokov, Dostoevsky (all among Pamuk’s favorite writers)—to whom he turns. His friends in the Turkish filmmaking world yearn to make films worthy of Godard or Truffaut.

Yet even this more positive conception of the West is fraught for young Turks. “What did these Europeans think about me? What did they think about us all?” Kemal wonders, walking the streets of Paris. He suspects that they aren’t thinking much about Turkey at all. “In Europe,” Sibel explains, “the rich are refined enough to act as if they’re not wealthy.” But the Istanbul elite lacks self-confidence; its members are both ashamed of their marginal role on the world stage and also eager to assert themselves, to gain recognition from the West.

Kemal wants to remain a member in good standing within Istanbul society while enjoying “innocent” afternoons making love with his cousin, Füsun. Indeed, without once acknowledging his motives, he depends on the women’s perilous situations to bind them to him: Sibel, as his proper Turkish wife, and Füsun, as his mistress. He wants to enjoy the prerogatives of a Turkish man in a patriarchal society (his father kept a mistress with his wife’s knowledge), while claiming the status of honorary Westerner, blissfully beyond his countrymen’s backward notions about honor and sex.

“In a country where men and women can’t be together socially, where they can’t see each other or even have a conversation, there’s no such thing as love,” Kemal’s mother tells him. Kemal counters: “Love is deep attention, deep compassion.” Certainly, he, who spent nine long years pining after his lost love, collecting everything she has touched, can claim to love and to love deeply. And yet Kemal is wholly inattentive to Füsun. “I never paused to wonder what might be going on in the mind of the woman with whom I was madly in love, and what her dreams might be,” he tells us. “I only fantasized about her.” He ignores any signs of Füsun’s unhappiness (seeking an outlet for her unrealized ambitions, she rather pointedly paints pictures of caged birds). His obsession traps her as surely as any traditional Turkish marriage would. Even before their romance comes to a fatal end, she is reduced to just another object in his collection.

Kemal’s museum—a monument to Füsun and the Istanbul of their youth—will be a different kind of museum from those in Western nations. There are two kinds of museums, he declares: “the Proud Ones,” which ostentatiously assert the power and glory of their nations, and “the Bashful Ones,” which seek to hide away their collections. The Museum of Innocence is to be of this latter kind, although Kemal admits that in establishing his eccentric collection, he too is attempting to assert power. As he tells “Orhan Bey,” the character who stands in for Pamuk, “Yes, pride is the crux of it.?.?.?.?With my museum I want to teach not just the Turkish people but all the people of the world to take pride in the lives they live. While the West takes pride in itself, most of the rest of the world lives in shame.”

The question is pride in what? Not the Turkish state, which Kemal regards as a basket case. (For his part, Pamuk claims disinterest in his country’s government—“I don’t much care whether rural Anatolians or Istanbul secularists take power”—while championing greater democracy, as though the two were unrelated.) Turkish culture, with its repression of women, is also suspect. “We have no culture, no taste, and no talent in the art of painting,” Kemal concedes.

What then does Turkey have that is “worthy of proud display”? The answer Kemal settles on is what he calls the “beauty of ordinary life,” the aesthetic experience of Istanbul as it once was. If love is deep attention, Kemal lavishes love upon the city of his youth, describing with care the forgotten corners of Füsun’s impoverished neighborhood: “their muddy cobblestone streets, their cars, rubbish bins, and sidewalks, and the children playing with a half-inflated football under the streetlamps.”

In The Museum of Innocence, Kemal describes the novelist’s art as the amassing of detail to create “a ‘sentimental museum’ in which each object shimmered with meaning,” and Pamuk’s novel itself shimmers with a quiet beauty. If he does not fully answer his own questions about Turkey’s place in the world or its relation to the West, Pamuk does powerfully evoke the secret longings and moral concerns of a soon-to-be-forgotten people whose moment is receding so quickly that whatever remains of their once precious possessions might, like those observed by Wharton’s lovers, soon exist only under glass and labeled “Use unknown.”

About the Author

Cheryl Miller, a new contributor, is a 2007 Phillips Foundation fellow in journalism and the editor of Doublethink magazine.

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