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The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk (August Reading Recap)

For reasons that included a trip to Utah and a whole lot of academic stuff that needed to happen before the start of the semester (even being on fellowship this year), I only read one book in August, Orhan Pamuk’s 2008 novel, The Museum of Innocence. Pamuk’s books also take a while to read because they defy being read quickly, at least for me. I need to be in a place and time that I can be sucked in.

Kemal Bey is the scion of upper crust of the Istanbul bourgeoisie and in a good place in 1975. He is thirty, manages his father’s business, and is about to be engaged to Sibel, his “steady” girlfriend. The way that Kemal tells it, the “steady” is important because it is the only way to be sexually active before marriage without frequenting prostitutes, despite that Sibel and her friends aspire to be liberated western women. The engagement party is going to be the event of the year where anybody who is anybody will be there and most of the black market western booze in the city will be served. But the reader knows that this happy, ho-hum existence cannot last, since, in the very first paragraph of The Museum of Innocence, Kemal declares that a sexual encounter with Füsun was the happiest moment of his life.

At first Kemal is what passes for normal. He has his important and beautiful girlfriend, his company, and his life. Then, while in a shop, he runs into Füsun, a distant relative who he hasn’t seen in years. She is eighteen and studying for her exams, so Kemal, inflamed by what he calls love, but that I would describe as lust, offers to tutor her. Naturally, their tutoring sessions mostly involve sex, and Kemal’s life continues with only minor interruption. When this routine is broken and Füsun disappears, Kemal’s life falls apart, becoming estranged from his fiancee, his friends, his business partners, and eventually his family. His only obsession is finding her. When he does finally find her, Füsun is married and still living with her family, and Kemal worms his way into their life. The process takes eight years and only at the end is there any prospect of payoff. Along this journey Kemal begins to collect items associated with Füsun and uses them as a surrogate for being near to her. These objects form the seeds of the collection of the eponymous museum, which opened in 2012.

This is the barest outline of the story and it feels inadequate. I excluded entire plot points, such as the profound changes wrought by deaths in the family, that Füsun was molested as a child, the founding of a movie studio, details of Füsun’s (probably happy) marriage, and Kemal’s teaching Füsun how to drive. The story may be divided into five phases, the initial lust, madness of loss, patience, love, and remembrance, each from the point of view of Kemal, though, as is often the case with Pamuk’s work, the narrator is not necessarily the narrator.

Early in the reading of The Museum of Innocence I hated Kemal, liked Füsun ( who is mature beyond her years), and loved the fiancee Sibel, and was bemused that Pamuk would offer this shallow man who seemed determined to throw away his happy life because he lusted after a beautiful eighteen year old woman as his protagonist. His love, he maintains, inflamed him and was inescapable, but it is petty, jealous, and more interested in possessing her physically than anything else. Over the course of years, though, that seems to change, still lusting, but also developing into something deeper and more sincere, at least in how he narrates the story. Ironically, Füsun doesn’t ever seem to appreciate the change, while her mother seems to have seen the love from the outset. This whirlwind of perspectives even while having a single narrator is something I associate with Pamuk’s writing and was particularly true in The Museum of Innocence as the reader gets selective entree into the other viewpoints and for large swathes of the story characters who were likely present simply disappear from the retelling as the narrator obsesses over his out-of-reach object. For instance, Kemal says that he thinks that Füsun’s marriage was happy sexually in its early years, but, while narrating those years, her husband is a non-entity, being written out by Kemal who would rather not think about that.

The facet of the story that I found most moving was the underlying premise that everybody wants something and, frequently, that desired object is out of reach. The most blatant is Kemal’s pursuit of Füsun, but Sibel wants a “normal” marriage, Füsun wants to be an actress, Kemal’s mother wants her son not to embarrass the family, his father wants him to be happy (and many more). Everybody wants something and each of these desires is at least deferred. Kemal manages to reach a point of acceptance, others are less fortunate.

I really liked Museum of Innocence and want to talk at greater length about Pamuk’s oeuvre, probably after I finish reading my current book, his novel The New Life (and possibly one other). Something that hit me about the novels is that, even though they are not a series, Pamuk has populated Istanbul with characters that continually crop up in different ways in different stories, which has a way of enriching the stories in small ways because the the streets, the shops, the stories, and the newspaper columns are familiar. These are not merely easter eggs for the astute reader, but compose the fabric of the story.