The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada -- click cover for more info

Translated by Maureen Freely

I’ll confess to a high level of ambivalence when it comes to the Nobel Prize for Literature, particuarly in recent years. I don’t follow it closely, but do pay some attention — and usually find myself reacting with some puzzlement each year when the winner is announced. Despite that distancing, the winner’s name tends to stick with me and often, a few years later, that memory is enough to provide the incentive to read at least one of the author’s books.

The announcement of Orhan Pamuk as the 2006 Prize winner sparked more personal interest than usual. A citizen of Turkey who writes in Turkish, Pamuk has spent significant time in the United States and is a visiting professor at Columbia (He is now writer-in-residence at Bard College). Turkey — specifically Constantinople, Instabul where this book is set — has represented the crossroads between East and West in both trade and thought for centuries. That role today is perhaps more important than it has been in many recent decades, particularly as Turkish political leadership looks to joining the European Union. Pamuk describes that East-West tension in his two best known works (the IMPAC-award-winning My Name is Red and Snow) and even faced criminal charges for comments he made about how Turkey had treated both Kurds and Armenians. And finally my favorite Nobel winner of all time, Ivo Andric’s A Bridge on the Drina, explored those same East-West tensions from the Western side of the crossroads in what was then Yugoslavia.

So when I saw that Pamuk’s new book, The Museum of Innocence, was due for English-language release, I signed up for a copy. I did so with some trepidation — some blog and forum scanning indicated both a complexity and a modernist style that would produce a challenge, given my reading tastes and style. I admit up front that The Museum of Innocence is the most difficult book that I have read to the finish this year, although complexity and modernism did not prove to be the problem. Rather, the incredibly slow movement of the book and the relentless exploration of apparently trivial detail produced a frustrating ennui (that reads better than “boredom”) that frequently had me wanting to simply abandon it. And then, quite suddenly, Pamuk would arrive at an observation that demanded attention — and a commitment to finish. Eventually, I adopted a pattern of reading 40 or 50 pages and setting the book down. I’m glad I read it but I warn those who contemplate The Museum of Innocence that it is a very challenging read.

At it’s most obvious level, The Museum of Innocence is a story of love (and obsession) — a relationship that happens in the reverse of the more usual unrequited love story. The first person narrator, Kemal, tells the story from a perspective some decades in the future; indeed, we are aware early on that he is telling it as a guide to the physical museum he has established to commemorate the relationship.

The story starts in 1975 (almost exactly a half century after Ataturk ended the Ottoman Empire and started the Turkish Republic) when a 30-year-old Kemal spots a designer handbag from Paris in the window of a fashion shop and decides to buy it for his fiance — they both come from wealthy Instabul families who are eager to show their modernity by adopting European mores and purchasing European goods. Kemal immediately falls in love with the 18-year-old clerk, Fusun, who is a distant relative he knew in childhood but whose family has fallen out of favor because as a 16-year-old she took part in a beauty contest (there is a limit to just how European we can be).

The two almost immediately begin a passionate affair (that is deemed an appropriate, if questionable, European-like behavior) despite Kemal’s pending engagement party — that affair is the incident that will dominate the 532-page book. Kemal won’t give up his engagement, so the affair is doomed from the start:

I sometimes caught myself thinking that I would be able to continue seeing Fusun after the engagement. This heaven, in which everything would go on as before, slowly evolved from a fantasy (let’s call it a dream) into a reasonable hypothesis. If she and I could be this passionate, this generous, making love, then she could not possibly leave me, or so I reckoned. In fact, this was my heart talking, not my reason. I was hiding these thoughts even from myself.

That statement takes place on Page 101 and captures the synopsis of this story line; with more than 400 pages to go, it is not a very promising outlook. And then, only two pages, later Pamuk has one of his insights that demand more reader persistence. His engagement party is about to take place at the Istanbul Hilton:

When I was ten, my parents attended the opening of the hotel, a very exciting occasion for them, along with all of Istanbul society, as well as the long-forgotten American film star Terry Moore. We could see the new building from our house, and though at first it looked foreign against Istanbul’s tired old silhouette, during the years that followed my parents grew accustomed to it, going there whenever they could. Representatives of foreign firms to whom my father sold goods — they were to a man all interested in “Oriental” dancing — all stayed at the Hilton. On Sunday evenings, when we would go as a family to eat that amazing thing called a hamburger, a delicacy as yet offered by no other restaurant in Turkey, my brother and I would be mesmerized by the pomegranate-colored uniform with gold braids and flashy buttoned epaulettes of the doorman with the handlebar moustache. In those years so many Western innovations made their first appearance in this hotel that the leading newspapers even posted reporters there. If one of my mother’s favorite suits got stained, she would send it to the dry cleaner at the Hilton, and she liked to drink tea with her friends at the patisserie in the lobby.

The passionate, but brief, affair with Fusun ends; not long after so does the engagement. Kebal begins his long quest of Fusun and falls into the obsession that will dominate the rest of his existence. It takes more than a year for him to find her, by which time she is married to an aspiring filmmaker (he wants to direct a European-style “art” film) although they are so poor that they continue to reside with her parents. Kebal uses the pretext of being able to finance the film to begin an almost eight year relationship where he shows up regularly at the house for dinner and the evening — he will go there for supper 1,593 times in a period of 2,864 days (don’t say I didn’t warn you about detail in the book). Almost immediately he begins what will develop into a conscious project of pocketing whatever mementoes he can (salt shakers, lipstick tubes, plastic dogs that sit atop the television) that will eventually become the exhibits in his “museum of innocence”.

The novel acquires a different focus in this very lengthy period: Aristotle’s notion of “Time”:

In Physics Aristotle makes a distinction between Time and the single moments he describes as the “present”. Single moments are — like Aristotle’s atoms — indivisible, unbreakable things. But Time is the line that links these indivisible moments. … Clocks and calendars do not exist to remind us of the Time we’ve forgotten but to regulate our relations with others, and indeed all of society, and this is how we use them.

My life has taught me that remembering Time — that line connecting all the moments that Aristotle called the present — is for most of us a rather painful business. When we try to conjure up the line connecting these moments, or, as in our museum, the line connecting all the objects that carry those moments inside them, we are forced to remember that the line comes to an end, and to contemplate death.

Those three story lines — pursuit of Fusun, obsession extended over time, East-West tensions — all continue but they are explored, rather than developed. It is that relentless exploration which makes The Museum of Innocence such a difficult book to read. While one can admire Pamuk’s persistence and devotion to detail, there is not a lot of readily accessible substance to it.

I can certainly understand that readers with different tastes and approaches to reading would find this an “easier” and probably more satisfying work than I did. I neither recommend nor discourage — I hope this attempt at a summary supplies enough information to help those who are contemplating reading it reach a decision. For my part, I’ll be interested in what I think a few weeks or months down the road — Aristotle has a pretty good point in the notion that one of Time’s purposes is to serve as a line that connects those moments that we remember. We shall see how reading this book lands on that line in the future.

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28 Responses to “The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk”

  1. kimbofo Says:

    I’ve somehow ended up with two review copies of this one but have yet found the courage to read Pamuk’s latest. Interesting to get your take on it. Is this the first one you’ve read by him, then?

    I read Snow a few years ago and it blew me away. It wasn’t an easy read but it was a rewarding one. I found myself so impressed by it, I just could not bring myself to review it, because whatever I wrote would be pithy in comparison. I was hoping that The Museum of Innocence would be more of the same.

    I was actually toying with the idea of taking this one on a long-haul flight (26 hours of hell, from London to Melbourne), but now not so sure…

    Thanks for your review.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    kimbofo: It is my first Pamuk, so treat my comments with that in mind. My guess is that if you liked Snow, you probably would like this book — there is a lot to recommend it, but Pamuk’s distinctive style is probably the major barrier. It would not be my idea of a good airplane book (you do want to put it down periodically) but that may be more a reflection of my reading style than anything else.

  3. Rick P Says:

    I’ll have to think about whether this one will be on my reading list. From your review, I’m both daunted and intrigued.

    My Name Is Red is on my bookshelf and is in my mind as one of the next 10 books I’m planning to read. Have you read that and if so what did you think?

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rick: From what I have read about My Name is Read, I think I would try that one first. This may be a better book but I think the two are similar enough that reading the one you already have is the best approach. If you like it, I suspect you would like this book. My impression (admittedly off blog and forum opinions) is that Pamuk does have a pretty consistent style.

  5. Trevor Says:

    My only experience with Pamuk is quite interesting. I started My Name Is Red a few years ago and I swore I finished it. It was incredibly dense, and after only fifty pages I felt like I’d already read a 500-page book. Anyway, earlier this year I stumbled across my copy and found my bookmark still some pages from the end. I don’t think this has ever happened to me before. Why did I think I’d finished it? I generally have no trouble reading a book to the end, and if I don’t, I usually know exactly which book it was and why I stopped. This one, for some reason, felt finished. I have yet to go back and finish the job because too much of the pages I did read are lost to me. I do look forward to finally finishing it someday, though — it was very very good.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: Your comment evokes my experience with The Museum of Innocence. It took me two weeks to finish the book (and I read three others in between) and that almost never happens. Every time that it was time to pick it up again, I would find some excuse to do something else. But I knew throughout this that it was a book that I should finish — and I am glad that I finally did. I do love the notion of you discovering a couple of years down the road that you didn’t finish the book — don’t you think it is at least possible that you tucked the bookmark back in the book on the day that you did finish it?

  7. Ronak M Soni Says:

    What’s your experience with other modernists/post-modernists? Coetzee, Joyce ( :P ), etc.? It would be interesting to know how this compares to them. (I’ve read lots of Coetzee, but neither Joyce nor Pamuk.)

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Ronak: I’ve read a fair bit of Coetzee — he’s far easier to read, his books have more action and they are significantly shorter. Joyce’s language and symbolism are much more difficult — I would compare him with Pamuk. The closest comparisons I could come up with would be Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country which won the National Book Award last year (the same event is examined from three points of view — it was originally three books) or perhaps Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks for its attention to detail, although it has a lot more plot.

  9. Ronak M Soni Says:

    Ok, that helps. Thanks.
    And now you’ve got me inerested in Matthiesen’s Rashomon book. Brilliant.

  10. Blithe Spirit Says:

    Yes, I had a similar reading experience to you Kevin. I read 200 pages and thought, oh, this is just more of the same, how am I going to finish this book? And did what you did – read others inbetween short 50 page bouts of Museum. But then the last 200 pages really captured my interest and I read them at one swoop. The repetition does make sense given the obsession and the idea of curating memories, both in the written word and in his museum, so once I accepted that style, I was okay with the rest. But it definitely had a different narrative flow, to say Snow, although both deal with some of the same themes, East-West differences etc.

    For me, the reading experience of Museum was akin to reading one of the sections of Bolano’s 2666 (can’t remember which one it was and I don’t have the book in front of me at the moment), but it was the section in Mexico which repeatedly describes the deaths and disappearances of the women. After a while it got plodding and repetitive too, and I wanted to put the book down, but I understood what Bolano was doing – he didn’t WANT us to be complacent about these deaths, because even though it was fiction, real women were dying at this rate.

    It’s a completely different situation with Pamuk’s novel, but I think the repetition is used to the same effect. Real obsession doesn’t go away; it’s all-pervasive and all in the minute details. If we’re going to empathize or understand the main character, then, Pamuk seems to be suggesting, we have to at some level immerse ourselves in what he’s going through. The reader has to then decide if the author’s writing is good enough and the character is interesting enough, to continue. I enjoyed but didn’t love Museum and it’s not a book I could ever see myself re-reading, although I do want to read more of Pamuk’s work.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Blithespirit: Thank you for the wonderful comment — I could not agree more with your observations. I am not a Bolano reader so I can’t comment on that aspect, but everything that you say about Pamuk is true. Every time that you want to put the book down, he comes up with some other observation that says you must continue. Thank you so much for confirming that opinion.

  12. Trevor Says:

    don’t you think it is at least possible that you tucked the bookmark back in the book on the day that you did finish it?

    That’s what I thought at first Kevin, but I looked ahead and could remember nothing from those pages. The pages behind the bookmark were familiar. I’m pretty sure that I put it down for a lengthy period of time and got caught up in other things. Very curious. I hope that this doesn’t happen often! That would be cause for alarm! I know of several books that still have a bookmark in them (some very close to the end) simply because I didn’t care to finish. I know where I stand with those books, though, whereas here it wasn’t a conscious decision to stop and I still don’t really remember neglecting to finish the book. Like I said, though, I think the dense and complex story help create the illusion — not of completeness, not of resolution per se — but of having had a full experience. I have since acquired Snow but haven’t even cracked it yet. I’m afraid Pamuk and I are going to have a very slowly developed relationship if we ever have one at all.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: From my limited experience, “slowly developed relationship” is the only option when it comes to Pamuk. I do think that part of this is that Pamuk comes from a very different literary tradition that which those of use born and raised in the West are used to — and that we need to keep that in mind when we read his work. Which is why you should resume reading that book from where you found the bookmark.

  14. Kerry Says:

    Kevin, I really enjoyed this review and the comments it has sparked. I was planning to read something by Pamuk in the coming year, but now I think it probably won’t be this one. My opinion may change, it does sound like an extremely interesting book. But the thought of a long, slow read does not appeal to me at the moment.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: My impression from other blogs and forums is that whatever Pamuk you pick up, it is going to be a long, slow read for a North American. I wish that I knew more about Turkish fiction because I do wonder if this characteristic may in fact be an extension of the oral story-telling tradition which stresses completeness and attention to detail — approaching The Museum of Innocence as a project to be extended over 40 nights would probably make it a better read.

  16. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It’s a scathing comment on a book really, when you put it down and forget you did so. I rarely bother returning to a book when that happens with it.

    I’ve read Pamuk’s The White Castle (the subject of plagiarism accusations, interestingly), and my main comment would be that it’s no longer on my shelf. I thought it ultimately tedious, philosophical but not in a terribly interesting way.

    I own My Name is Red, which I shall get round to at some point, but I have to say at the moment I feel the market may be overweighting Pamuk and a correction may be due at some point. Author’s stocks may go down as well as up and all that.

    But, I base that on one short novella I didn’t like, so I may just be in a curmudgeonly mood this evening. Be that as it may, I thought this a very interesting review, but unless My Name is Red blows me away I doubt I’ll be picking this one up any time too soon.

  17. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Oh, on the subject of plagiarism claims since I mentioned that, it’s quite often simply coincidence. There was a case a few years back where PD James was accused of plagiarism in respect of The Children of Men, the plot being essentially identical to an earlier novel by Brian Aldiss titled Greybeard.

    Aldiss eventually declared himself satisfied that they’d just had the same idea, and it had naturally developed in almost exactly the same way, it wasn’t plagiarism after all, but the similarities were so striking it’s no surprise the claim arose. It’s tricky territory, unless the words are actually the same it’s hard to rule out coincidence of inspiration.

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I don’t think that I’ll be trying either My Name is Red or The White Castle in the near future — this book was just too much hard work for the benefits that it did produce. And what I have read about those two (including your comment) seem to indicate they would be more of the same.

    As for plagiarism, the ex-journalist in me would like to see that term restricted to the actual repitition of words (and that is a very serious offence for any writer). Similarities of theme, idea or even plot I’d prefer to see described as derivative, certainly a criticism but not nearly as serious as stealing some else’s actual words.

  19. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I wouldn’t terribly object to that restriction Kevin, as the PD James example shows it’s possible to replicate another author’s work in some detail and yet be wholly innocent of any copying.

    Lizzy Siddal’s got a Pamuk writeup over at hers which is worth a look at too, by way of another view (though she looked at The White Castle rather than this one).

  20. Cydny Rothe Says:

    I felt irritated with “Museum of Innocence” all the way through with the exception of three or so paragraphs when the narrator would say something that felt deep, authentic and real rather than obssessive, fetischistic and compartmentalized from true feeling. My sense was that the character and the author shared the same blind spot so that the author was not able to provide any reflective narrative sesparate from this obssessional bent of mind. The details, while certainly reflective of this kind of character make-up, didn’t deepen, broaden or elaborate the human experience. The experience was like watching a film about drug addicts. They succomb to more compulsive drug taking and an ever chaotic life. There is no character development that’s not predictable. Sitting for 531 pages in the stuckness of an obbsessional love which does not, after all, have as much to do with love as it does with addiction, was not a rewarding, enriching or learning experience for me. I have a hard time understanding what pleasure there is in this book.

  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Cydny: While I share your frustration with the lack of character development (and ultimately the emptiness of the obsessive love), I did think that along the way there were some worthwhile observations about conflicts in Turkish society. Perhaps not enough to justify 531 pages, but they did keep me involved. Thanks for sharing your observations.

  22. Cydny Rothe Says:

    Yes, I agree. For example, I wondered if the perverted relationship with women makes it difficult for a Turkish man to develop a full relationship with his own feminine nature and that this might explain both the author’s and the character’s difficulty with experiencing or portraying the fullness of lived emotional life. The sexual content in the beginning had the most vitality and fullness though even it seemed over idealized and lacking in a certain earthy reality.

  23. Mary Says:

    I’ve only managed to get through one Pamuk: Snow. I like to challenge my brain with writers who are considered difficult from time to time ( though as I get older this becomes less and less appealing….) but the main reason I tackled Snow was because AS Byatt ( or was it Margaret Drabble……?) made it her and her husband’s only choice in Books of the Year a couple of years ago – it was that good they said. I found this intriguing and I like snow so I thought I’d give it a go. There were some lovely descriptions of snow falling in a frozen , nameless, provincial town. There were some potentially fascinating issues raised, not least the suppression of women in the town and the subsequent suicide of young girls. There was a theatre troupe a love affair and a murder. Sounds good? Not so I’m afraid. It was tedious, repetitive and utterly,mind numbingly, pulverisingly slow. Far too illusive for me I’m afraid. With my thumb firmly measuring the unread pages – now that’s something you can’t do with Kindle – I inched my way to the end and made it eventually. I wanted to say I’d read a Pamuk. I’ve read Pamuk – and I never want to read another one. ( Oh and My Name is Red was a fifty page give-up for me too)

  24. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Cydny, Mary: I’ll admit that after my experience with this book, plus comments I have read about both Snow and My Name is Red, it is extremely unlikedly that I will be visiting Pamuk’s earlier work. Although “pulverisingly slow” is an observation that certainly could be applied to The Museum of Innocence. I still think Max’s earlier comment that the market is overweighting Pamuk is right on the mark. It seems that every book has interesting potential which the author manages not to realize.

  25. Ronak M Soni Says:

    You guys make it sound like he bought the Nobel.

    Also, you discourage me from ever trying him out.

  26. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Ronak: I probably should not comment, since the only Pamuk I have read is post-Nobel, but I can’t resist. He does share a trait that I have found in a number of other literature laureates (Mahfouz, Muller, Naipul, Saramago, to name just a few) in that he sets his books in a repressive society. My grumpiness with the Nobel juries’ selections is that the books — for this reader at least — become almost as repressive as the society in which they are set.

  27. anton Says:

    This is my 3rd Pamuk. To be honest, he has not mastered some of the basics of writing yet. Attention to detail, but useless at continuity. In ‘Snow’ the main character just starts walking for no reason. In ‘Museum’ this business man lies in bed in an abandoned flat for hours every day amd inexplicably goes to the movies during office hours. I could not help cringing about the sheets on that bed where they were fornicating and sweating. No wonder he could smell Fusun months later!

    I think that the Nobel Prize for literature is used for politcal purposes. All authors have rebelled against authority or government. Pamuk is a bad read and goodness I have read enough books at the age of 66 to know!

  28. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Anton: I have to admit that this one has faded badly with the months. I remember the overall theme of the story and a few specific aspects (the open-air movie theatres, some of the efforts at being Western) but not much more.

    As for the Nobel, I agree — I have felt for some time that the literature prize is more about some political statement than a recognition of good writing. That doesn’t mean that all Nobel winners are bad authors but some of them certainly are.

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