The Museum of Innocence
Faber and Faber
The Literature Nobel has a somewhat nasty reputation of being the literary Lifetime Achievement Oscar. A past master, whose current output is at best upper-mediocre, is picked up from the out-of-fashion tray and given the bauble primarily as a pension scheme. Otherwise, the Nobel jury picks someone whom very few people have heard of and ensures that an unknown writer makes it to the headlines for three days.
Orhan Pamuk, who won the Literature Nobel in 2006, does not fall under either category. He is a big name in the world of trans-global literary taste, and is far from scrounging around the back of the bottom drawer of his writing desk. In fact, with his first post-Nobel Prize novel, The Museum of Innocence, he has reached the height of his powers.
I was clearly in a negligible minority when I found Istanbul, Pamuk’s double-helixed history of himself and his city a bit too pat, a bit too contrived, as if the reader was being taken through a Viewmaster tour of nostalgia. What his latest book does is reestablish the primacy of tone, the multilayerness of images, ideas and sensations that are the hallmarks of a truly great novel. It’s not too often that I find myself finishing a book and agreeing with the blurb at the back: ‘This is Orhan Pamuk’s greatest achievement.’
Written in a style that reminded me of those great disturbingly comic novels by Milan Kundera (whose time for the Nobel will predictably arrive after the publication of his weakest novel), Pamuk tells the story of Kemal, an Istanbul babalog with doting parents and an aristrocratic fiancée, Sibel. Theirs is the Good Life modernity with wealth brings to those who remain languidly unaware of leading it.
But the book does not start there. It starts in the erotically shimmering zone of the apartment where Kemal usually takes some time out from his father’s export-import office, but where, on the afternoon of Monday, May 26, 1975, (“the happiest moment of my life”), he is having mind-blowing sex with the beautiful shopgirl and a distant cousin of his, Füsun.
The description of their lovemaking in the opening pages — with boys playing football in the garden below, swearing furiously in the May heat while the couple “enacted, word for word, exactly those indecencies” — tells the reader that the narrator is keen to have his ‘modernity’ admired. Pamuk’s exploration of modernity, however, as we are led to discover across the pages set in 70s Istanbul, is more than just Kemal getting tipsy on raki, being driven in his father’s 1956 Chevrolet and cheating on his fiancée. It is also about being comfortable being blase — the same sort of ‘being modern’ as displayed by a character in Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz’s 1937 masterpiece of European modernism, Ferdydurke, who “casually heads for the toilet, while till then people had gone in secret”.
There’s a delightful passage where Kemal insists, “I believe in Turkish films”. Much earlier, we have been already told how Turkish youngsters kiss “in imitation of people kissing in films”. Memories of and artefacts associate with the Lolita-like Füsun lie scattered across the museum (his apartment) where Kemal’s self-described role is to be “an anthropologist of my own experience”.
The Museum of Innocence is Pamuk’s grand investigation of love, desire, class differences, sexual politics, and Istanbul. But above all, it is a tender, smiling exploration of what happens when two people from two separate worlds come into addictive contact. This is a masterpiece.