City of Memories and Regrets

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Maureen Freely

Justin Marozzi

Istanbul is an eminently modern synthesis of East and West. Cleft in two by the waters of the Bosporus, it sprawls uniquely and Janus-like across two continents, looking both to Europe and Asia for its ever-shifting cultural identity. It is one of the world’s most arresting urban centres, a city of and for our time. Yet like so many places on which the shadows of former greatness fall heavily, it is a storehouse of memories and regret. Strange as it may seem almost 600 years after the fact, many Greeks still mourn its loss to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, and can’t even bring themselves to call it Istanbul. To them, and to other diehard romantics — Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, doyen of philhellenes, is a shining example — the city will always be referred to, and remembered, as Constantinople. I remember a Greek academic proudly telling me it was ironic the Turks were so insistent on the newer name for the city since it came from the Greek expression Is tin Polin, meaning “to the city”, Poli being the name by which Greeks referred to their beloved Constantinople.

If memories still haunt the city today, future generations will probably come to see Orhan Pamuk as one of its most noted memorialists. My Name is Red, which brought him international renown, took the reader into the heart of Istanbul in the closing years of the 16th century. Istanbul, his memoir of 2003, reeks of a present submerged by the past. Pamuk’s Istanbul becomes a city-museum. 

In The Museum of Innocence, his first work since winning the Nobel Prize in 2006, the city returns to the fore. At one level, it is the dynamic background to a breathtaking love story set in the 1970s and ’80s, witness and home to a dangerous, ultimately fatal obsession. The love is between Kemal, 30 years old and from a rich industrialist’s family, and Füsun, a beautiful shop assistant and distant relation aged 18. 

But the love that is equally on display is that of Pamuk for his city, a passion that derives greater force from the fact of his exile in recent years. Ever since the novelist’s remarks in 2005 about the Turkish massacre of Armenians and Kurds, a deeply controversial challenge to a quintessentially Turkish taboo, he has spent much of his time outside his homeland, where he is a divisive figure.

The Museum of Innocence is at once a portrait of the city and a sublimely crafted portrait of obsession. Love strikes shortly before Kemal’s engagement to Sibel, a thoughtful young woman from his own class and fledgling urban sophisticate. Accustomed to the easy charms of privilege, Kemal thinks he can have both women: Sibel as wife and Füsun as mistress. Abandon is the order of the day with the younger woman. “Our kisses delivered us beyond the pleasures of flesh and sexual bliss for what we sensed beyond the moment of the springtime afternoon was as great and wide as Time itself.” Throughout this aching novel, hauntingly Proustian in its dream-like commingling of the past and the present, memories continually stalk the here and now. Even when they kiss, Kemal is kissing Füsun both in the moment and as he remembers her.

Inevitably, it is not to be. From briefly having both women, it is but a short step to having neither. Obsession is ignited in all its destructive force as the younger girl walks away from their intoxicating daily liaisons, soon to be married to a poor would-be filmmaker. The engagement with Sibel sadly stutters.

It takes a certain kind of love to subject oneself to eight years of almost daily humiliation. Kemal takes to dining with Füsun and her husband and family several times a week. Minutely charting the contact with his elusive lover, he counts the 1,593 suppers shared during a period of 2,864 days. 

Sprinkled steadily through the text are the notes of artefacts regularly culled from her house to feed his memory and preserve, in his own, apparently delusional mind, his happiness, objects which are destined for the museum of the book’s title (Pamuk will be opening a real Museum of Innocence next year). 

Some are fairly predictable: panties, film ticket stubs, a telephone token. Occasionally, the sheer weirdness of this compulsive pillaging of memories pulls the reader up with a jolt. There are the 4,213 cigarette butts Kemal harvests, their crumpled forms methodically analysed as indications of Füsun’s mood at the time, her discarded olive pits and, strangest of all, a neighbour’s artificial hand.

Kemal describes himself as the “anthropologist of my own experience” yet like so many of the great narrators of literature — for some reason the ageing lawyer Louis in Le Noeud de Vipères by Mauriac, another Nobel laureate, springs to mind, albeit without the rancour, as he surveys the wilderness of a wasted life — he is deeply flawed.

How innocent is a love and attachment so intensely painful that it sends “acid-filled grenades” exploding in his “blood and bones”, not to mention almost ruining one woman and going a long way to killing the other?

The tensions and hypocrisies inherent in the relationship reflect those of the panoramic Istanbul behind it, eager to be modern and Western yet resolutely attached to the traditions of the past and the East. Sexual freedom, long sought for, carries its own dangers. 

In Istanbul, a woman’s pre-marital virginity, or at least the appearance of it, somehow remains essential. Füsun pays for her teenage bedwork by being shoved into an arranged marriage to avoid further shame and family dishonour. Kemal’s and Sibel’s pre-marital carryings-on scandalise society. 

As Kemal exhibits the steadily assembling collection of his museum while the years pass, clinging on to the notion that he is happy until the very end though those around him see nothing but ruin in his bizarre, solitary existence, Pamuk gives a virtuoso display of storytelling, sumptuously translated by Maureen Freely. The Museum of Innocence is a work of prodigious imaginative power, an exhilarating and heart-tearing read and an epic of love and obsession, memory and loss.

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