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.