Orhan Pamuk’s “Museum of Innocence”

Reviewed by Carla Baricz

Image of Orhan Pamuk’s “Museum of Innocence”

Orhan Pamuk’s mesmerizing meditation on love and loss in a bygone Istanbul opens with a quotation from Coleridge’s notebooks: “If a man could pass thro’ Paradise in a Dream, and have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his Soul had really been there, and found that flower in his hand when he awoke—Aye? and what then?” Pamuk adapts Coleridge’s speculation to his story of objects which, like Coleridge’s flower, become both reminders of a paradise forever lost and proof of its erstwhile existence.

The novel, set in Istanbul in the 1970s, a time of rapid social change, when the city’s population exploded and its trade with the West intensified, opens with what the narrator assures us was “the happiest moment of my life.” The book expands around this moment, as its protagonist begins gathering mementos that remind him of the bliss he experienced at a quarter to three on the afternoon of Monday, May 26, 1975. His and the novel’s painstaking collection of objects, memories, vistas, and characters, attempts—unsuccessfully—to recreate this once-known reality of being “beyond sin and guilt,” in a world “released from gravity and time.” On that afternoon, an upper-class young man named Kemal made love to Füsun, a shop girl and distant, poorer relation. He was thirty, she eighteen. They met in a cluttered apartment which Kemal’s mother used as a storage space. Outside, children played soccer. The spring breeze lifted the curtains. Füsun discovered she had lost an earring. Pamuk’s gift, the gift of all great writers of love stories, is to show how this tender, if ordinary, event became the focal point of a passion that outlasts both the lovers themselves and Istanbul as they lived and experienced it.

The novel is cleverly constructed as a fictive museum of memories. As the reader progresses through the clutter of Kemal’s personal recollections, which kaleidoscopically refract different facets and faces of Füsun, Pamuk’s masterly storytelling convincingly portrays how a simple tryst comes to redefine Kemal’s life. “Happiness means being close to the one you love, that’s all,” muses the narrator. It is this search for happiness that Pamuk chronicles, a search as old as literature itself.

Kemal is a wealthy inhabitant of Nişantaşı, the Istanbul neighborhood Pamuk movingly rendered as his Ithaca in his 2005 memoir, Istanbul: Memories and the City, a modern Odysseus whose return to Füsun’s side is complicated by a number of social and familial obstacles. Perhaps most distressingly, Kemal is set to marry Sibel, a stylish Sorbonne graduate and socialite with a penchant for French accessories. Determined to please her by buying her a purse that she had admired in a shop window during a moonlit walk, he returns the following day to the same display window. Behind it, he meets Füsun, who works as an assistant to the owner of the boutique. The purse, supposedly by the designer Jenny Colon, is embarrassingly revealed to be a fake. Of course, the real precious thing on display turns out to be Füsun, just as the “real” Jenny Colon was the mistress of the French poet Gerard de Nerval. Colon was a mediocre, if beautiful, opera singer whom Nerval adored, although she did not return his affection and married another. Similarly, Füsun dreams of becoming an actress and eventually chooses to marry Feridun, a screenwriter of cheap, locally produced films. She becomes Kemal’s mistress in the retrospective “happiest moment” described at the beginning of the book, but the purse she offers Kemal upon their first meeting prefigures the turn events will take; knowing Kemal to be engaged, she, like Colon, will ignore ardent promises of affection and leave her suitor for someone she hopes will further her career.

The narrative follows the changes that take place in Füsun’s life as she attempts to forget her affair with Kemal–her marriage, her new hobbies, her father’s death, her changing taste in fashion, even as Kemal desperately attempts to return to the past, the “eternal-present” that dominates his thoughts. The themes that animate most of Pamuk’s works—the division between East and West, the history of a romantic half-forgotten Istanbul, mysterious doubles who throw one’s identity into question, the extraordinary possibilities of life hidden behind the curtain of the quotidian, the weight of history, even of literary history—here play out as an intimate journey of homecoming, a return to the original moment of paradisiacal happiness. Though Kemal and Füsun cannot be together, Kemal’s nostalgia—literally his desire for nostos—draws him nightly to Füsun’s house, his true home, where for more than eight years he attempts to recapture his former pleasure by watching Füsun go about her daily tasks.

Since he cannot possess her, since he can neither marry nor bed her, Kemal indulges in the possibility of reassembling her body in a different manner. He begins by acquiring as many objects that shared Füsun’s existence as possible: cups, cigarette butts, china dogs, hair clips, even a quince grater that becomes the subject of a memorable chapter. He transports these talismans of Füsun to the Mehmet Apartments, the site of their tryst many years earlier and now the storehouse of his museum, hoping that they will evoke her presence. “I may not have ‘won’ the woman I loved so obsessively,” he bitterly states, “but it cheered me to have broken off a piece of her, however small.” Füsun, as her name implies, is the ultimate “charm,” the centerpiece of this collection, whose absence is always felt, even as her presence in Kemal’s life grows. While he attempts to capture their past through objects that make up for lost time, she evades him, escaping to a future that he follows her into with tragic consequences. 

The Museum of Innocence is Pamuk at his very best. “Istanbul was now a galaxy of signs that reminded me of her,” says Kemal of Füsun. For the reader, the city becomes a galaxy of signs that remind one of Kemal’s creator and double—Pamuk. While the novel is a contemporary story of love in the high echelons of a traditional society with newly acquired liberal, “Western” values, it draws its beauty and insight from Pamuk’s portrayal of the city as the irreplaceable historical location of an atemporal, universal story, from his ability to make it as much innocent setting as participant in the plot. The Beyoğlu restaurants, the foghorns, the sun rising over the Bosphorus, Eid, or the Feast of Sacrifice, the birds flapping around Füsun’s window, and the objects Kemal collects from shops and movie theaters because they remind him of her, become both parts of the beloved and parts of the lover. They intrude as physical representations of memories, proof that “this is how it really was,” all the while giving the sense that this could have happened to anyone, in any city, at any time.

The objects and vignettes also function as concentrated reminders of the lost world of Istanbul circa 1970, as “vessels of a lost past,” which is reconstituted along with Füsun as the true home, as the point of beginning and end. “The Chinese used to believe that things had souls,” Füsun tells Kemal, remembering their first meeting. “I was driven by the very question that lay at the heart of what it meant to be a man or a woman in our part of the world,” Kemal tells the reader about his collection, remembering Füsun. “For I was she,” the speaker says to himself, collecting in words the souls of others.

The Museum of Innocence succeeds because it does not permit the catalog of things touched and gathered to overwhelm the very real sense that all is “far in the past, that it will never return.” Love, in Pamuk’s masterful depiction, is the sense that, in the shadow of things known and lost, one must nevertheless endeavor to preserve time and to reassemble one’s self from the life of a beloved other, even if the home to which one attempts to return is paradoxically forever out of reach.