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Think of all the great stories that have dealt with frustrated love—unrequited, lost, unacknowledged, unfulfilled, one-sided; painful, agonized, obsessive–so many unhappy characters you’d think there wouldn’t be the need for one more. I’m referring to the characters we’ve invested our reading lives in: Romeo and Juliet, Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale, Gatsby, Molly Bloom, Tom Jones, Emma Bovary, Pip in Great Expectations. The list goes on forever, not only in fiction but also in epics and drama, even poems. That said, it’s difficult to recall a literary character as obsessive and fixated on another as the hero of Orhan Pamuk’s devastating and astonishing new novel, The Museum of Innocence.
Kemal is thirty years old at the beginning of the story and twice that by the end. The rollercoaster ride he takes us on–relentlessly recording the minutest details of his inability to let go of his lost love–is related in the first-person, though there’s a caveat about that narration that I will reveal later. But, first, it’s necessary to provide a couple of basic facts necessary about the novel.
Chapter one begins: “It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn’t know it. Had I known, had I cherished this gift, would everything have turned out differently?” Though that second sentence is an ominous question, the rest of the initial paragraph explains Kemal’s happiness. It’s May 26, 1975, and he’s making love to his distant cousin, eighteen-year-old Füsun, from the poorer side of his extended family. Kemal is thirty, and in three weeks everyone who is important in Istanbul will attend a party to celebrate his engagement to Sibel (from another prominent family) at the newly-opened Hilton Hotel.
Days earlier, Kemal ran into his cousin, a shop girl in an exclusive store whom he hadn’t seen in years. Her extraordinary beauty immediately swept him away, so much so that he all but ignored his approaching engagement to Sibel. Füsun resisted Kemal’s approaches briefly but then gave in—not exactly a common occurrence in Turkey at the time. Even more unlikely, given Islam’s rigid protection of women, is the fact that Kemal also took Sibel’s virginity. But in her case, since the engagement party is imminent and will be followed by their wedding, it was not unknown for upper-class young women to engage in intercourse before marriage.
Everything will soon fall apart. Kemal knows that the engagement party should be called off but is unable to make that decision. Daringly, he even invites Füsun and her parents to the party for hundreds of the city’s elite. The longest chapter in the novel and easily the most riveting is given over to the party and the gavotte in which Kemal engages, first avoiding Füsun and then even flamboyantly dancing with her, as he gives in to the utter agony of the unbearable realization that he is going to marry the wrong woman.
Not too long after the engagement party, months actually, Kemal throws Sibel to the vicious scandal mongers who know that she has not only been dumped but is no longer a virgin and is, thus, relegated to a kind of cultural limbo. Kemal knows that Füsun loves him. In his naiveté, he believes that all he needs to do is return to her and then the two of them can get married.
This is where things become complicated, barely a fourth of the way into the story.
Füsun is nowhere to be found. When Kemal finally locates her, he discovers that she’s married, pressured into the arrangement by her parents to disguise the shame of her lost virginity. All of these events are narrated by Kemal, all fairly quickly and convincingly.
His belated realization that it is only Füsun who can make him happy—that she is the only person he can ever love—is related with such exquisite artistry that it’s difficult not to be captivated by Kemal’s story. How can this story end happily?
After he discovers that Füsun and her boorish husband, Feridun, are living with her parents, Kemal begins visiting them several times a week, eating his evening meal with the newly-weds and her parents Feridun wants to make films, and Füsun wants to become an actress. Kemal has the money, so he can produce the movies they hope to make. What he really wants is for Füsun to divorce her husband and return to him—something that her mother tells him that Füsun also desires.
Over eight years while he humors Füsun, her husband, and her family, while spending most evenings with them, Kemal begins stealing objects from their house–objects that Füsun has touched. It’s a time in Turkey when everyone seemed to smoke. Thus, Kemal takes the 4213 cigarette butts which have touched her lips—lips he hasn’t touched since before the engagement party—back to his own apartment. He also absconds with dozens of other household items which she has come into contact with, as the story shifts from realism to a kind of psychotic obsession with objects.
This is also where Kemal’s story and Orhan Pamuk’s own life merge into one–so blurring the two that it becomes impossible to separate them. Kemal, the character, tells the reader that he is no writer so he seeks out Pamuk the novelist to write the story that he will relate to him. Thus, Pamuk becomes a minor presence in the novel that identifies him as the writer. And stranger yet, Pamuk—who lives part of each year in Istanbul—is currently in the process of building a “Museum of Innocence” in the city he has celebrated so often in his work, including his previous book, Istanbul, his love song to the city of his birth. There’s even a ticket printed in the novel that will provide entry without charge to Pamuk’s museum, once it opens, sometime in 2010.
So what is “the museum of innocence”—a novel or a museum? Something stranger that fiction? In chapter eighty-one, also called “The Museum of Innocence,” Kemal expostulates on his “dream of telling my story through objects.” Later, he observes, “I remembered again why some museums had the power to make me shudder: They induced the feeling that I had become suspended in one age while the rest of humanity lived in another.” Kemal confesses to having visited 5723 museums around the world since the day he first realized that he would need to build his own museum.
In a recent interview in The New York Times Magazine, Orhan Pamuk identifies many of the objects that will be on display in his museum once it opens. They include lottery tickets, oddly shaped doorknobs, keys, a tricycle, even a set of false teeth in a glass three-quarters full of water. When asked if he is, in fact, Kemal, Pamuk responded, “No, I am not Kemal, but I cannot convince you that I am not Kemal. That is being a novelist.”
How do we separate writer from novel? We don’t. We accept the fusion of the two, acknowledging that in several of Pamuk’s earlier novels, the story is often about youthful love, an era of the past, a time of innocence for writers and their characters—but also the cities and the countries of their birth. The Museum of Innocence—sui generis in every way—is a paean to the past. Time cannot be recaptured, but the objects that dominated it can always be put on display. How fitting that for once these objects are not busts of the famous, inventions of the geniuses of those eras, or cultural oddities belying the worst excesses of a given time. Instead, they are personal artifacts, fetishes, emotive items that we are surrounded with every day of our lives, guilelessness recaptured.
What a dazzling novel.
The Museum of Innocence
By Orhan Pamuk
Knopf, 536 pp., $28.95
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.