Thursday, November 21, 2013

Orhan Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence

I just finished listening to the audiobook of Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence. It’s an extraordinary novel, romantic, poetic, informative, philosophical, and at times maddening. The translation by Maureen Freely reads beautifully in English.

Orhan Pamuk in his Museum of Innocence
I don’t want to spoil the story, so I’ll just say the plot concerns a man from an upper-class family in Istanbul, Turkey, who becomes deeply infatuated with a female distant cousin, while he’s engaged to a society woman.

The novel is full of lovingly rendered descriptions of Istanbul in the 1970s and 80s. Pamuk is particularly eloquent in describing how people entertained themselves then, from eating dinners at fish restaurants right near the Bosphorus, to attending schmaltzy Turkish movies in the summer in outdoor gardens, to watching the one channel of state-controlled television.

The differences in how the haves and the have-nots enjoyed their free time is one of the novel’s key contrasts. The main character and narrator, Kemal Basmaci, is from a family that owns factories, and he moves in the highly Europeanized world of Turkey’s upper crust, with their ski vacations and shopping trips to Paris or Milan. The young woman he falls in love with is from a distinctly lower-middle-class family that spends most of its time at home watching TV, and never leaves Turkey.

One of Pamuk’s main points, I think, is to show the self-hatred implicit in the upper class’s rejection of all things Turkish: anything Islamic, traditional sexual morality (which they claim to pooh-pooh but really hold fast to), Turkish folk music, etc.

The maddening aspect of the novel, for me, is the center section of the book, where the narrator/main character dwells endlessly on his obsessive attachment for his younger cousin. His love is moving, but it becomes such a mania that I found it unsympathetic during this part of the novel, though the narrator redeems himself by the end. If I hadn’t been listening to an audiobook narrated by the skilled voice of the actor John Lee, as I drove north and south on Highway 280, commuting between San Francisco and Silicon Valley, watching the sunset behind the fog-draped hills along the Crystal Spring Reservoir, I don’t know if I could have struggled through this section. I’m very glad I did. The last chapters of the book are among the best.

The book’s ending feels inevitable, given the protagonist’s extreme expectations of what his love can bring to his life. The final sections of the novel become a fascinating meditation on museums. Pamuk compares the Western attitude of pride in collecting to Eastern feelings of shame about assembling objects of deep meaning to the collector. This is yet another side of the book’s postcolonialism, which is not facile or rhetorical, but woven into the love story in a pattern as complex as a Turkish rug.

The class and race politics of The Museum of Innocence are pointed. They ring true. What troubles me are the sexual politics of the book. Pamuk's narrator tells us over and over about the main female’s character’s beatific qualities, but all we really see of her is her beauty-contest looks. The sex scenes are tender but male-centered.


I have to say I loved many sections of this novel, though. Pamuk is a master of description, particularly of the small but significant details of urban life, and his rendering of the world of Istanbul in the 1970s, complete with about 100 distinct characters, is amazing. My favorite character is Aunt Nesibe, the conniving mother of the narrator's love interest, who somehow winds up being lovable by being so immersed in the banal details of everyday life, and ends up sympathizing more deeply than anyone else with the narrator.

One extraordinary thing about this novel, published in Turkey in 2008, is that in 2012 Orhan Pamuk actually opened a Museum of Innocence in Istanbul, very similar to the one described in his novel. Life imitates art, but in this case, not without a sizable expenditure of time and money on the part of the author.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4 
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

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