on November 5, 2009
Orhan Pamuk's novels abound with a wealth of probing, social leitmotifs that are gracefully orchestrated into a Turkey perpetually wrestling with its hallowed traditions and a hollow modernization of Western import. In My Name is Red, the brilliantly written, Borgesian novel that won him the prestigious IMPAC Dublin award, he maps an arabesque, philosophical outtake on 16th century Turkey by focusing on its already tense relations with the ancient West. In Snow, another Byzantine masterwork of such poignant political urgency, Mr. Pamuk explores the dissidence aroused between Islamism and Westernism within a narrative steeped in the vagaries of a more recent era.
In The Museum of Innocence, Mr. Pamuk has yet again chosen to undertake a somewhat tendentious cultural issue: that of virginity's cherished sanctity among Turkish women living in an Istanbul metamorphosing with the changing trends. Kemal Basmac', the Byronic hero of this ornately beautiful and bittersweet piece, tells us that "virginity was still regarded as a treasure that young girls should protect until the day they married. Following the drive to Westernize and modernize, and (even more significantly) the haste to urbanize, it became common practice for girls to defer marriage until they were older, and the practical value of this treasure began to decline in certain parts of Istanbul."
In observance of Pamuk's investigations into an emerging modernity within his country's age-old cultural institution, this is an issue that no doubt rests strongly at the heart of the author's theater of wealthy, Europeanized Turks representing one extreme in the tragic realities of contemporary Turkey: the segregation of ostentatiously rich families residing in upscale neighborhoods, contrasted with the greater majority wallowing in squalor and destitution; the glaring absence of morals among the shallow and materialistic bourgeoisie; the pervading social disease of malicious gossip columnists and opulent parties designed to further flower wealth among the scant financial minority; and the unconscionable excesses of the Atatürk's secular revolution that divided society into sectors of religion and class, essentially pivoting around one's willingness to latch onto Western thought.
Kemal, a thirty-year old, unmarried scion of one of Istanbul's wealthiest families, promises marriage to Sibel, the daughter of another prominent clan; on one fateful day, as both wander around an upscale district of Istanbul fitted with modish boutiques and stylish restaurants, Kemal finds himself prey to a "black passion" with Füsun Keskin, a ravishingly beautiful shopgirl who also happens to be a distant relation. Early in the novel, Kemal and Sibel had just finished choreographing a lavish engagement party; meanwhile, Kemal secretly enters into a forbidden liaison with Füsun, violating not only his pact with his betrothed, but also transgressing the code of virginity--indeed, the very thing causes him to jettison his associations with the materialistic pretensions and the moral decay of the Istanbul elite.
When his lovelorn obsessions with Füsun become unbearable, he breaks off his engagement, but returns to her too late to resolve the anguish incurred during their affair. While there is something unnervingly selfish about this "intolerable obsession," particularly when Kemal continues to obsess about her in light of his father's death, his grim persistence is exactly what strikes him as endearing and comedic, his innocent digressions a whimsical analgesic against the incessant materialism, the "utter brainlessness," and the distorted social complexes of Turkish society. The dithering Kemal nurses a narcotic intoxication about Füsun, imagining specters of her character drifting around Istanbul, inadvertently envisioning rough and casual auguries of their sentimental reunion, and clothing himself in a dark mood that strains his relationships with the endemic glitterati.
Obstinately unrelenting, Kemal decides to pursue his love in an eight-year odyssey that transports him into an Istanbul diametrically opposite to the posh, upscale neighborhoods of his birth. Kemal visits Füsun's family in the shantytowns, the backwater districts where he finds comfort in the middle-class life of television dinners and casual, yet earnest discussions. Although discomposed by Füsun's marriage to an aspiring "fatso" of a film director, he remains vigilant through his subtle, unflagging courtship, eventually fostering a compulsive habit of religiously collecting objects and relics in a project later bearing fruit as a museum of sorts, squirreling away an eccentric stockpile consisting of 4,213 cigarette butts, 237 hair barrettes, 419 national lottery tickets, 1 saltshaker, and 1 quince grinder. As a comic aside, he's also precisely recorded the number of evenings he'd spent dining at the Keskins: 1,593 "happy nights" in a span of 409 weeks.
But Kemal isn't merely an ordinary pining lover shorn of depth or substance; in the span of the novel's five-hundred-some pages, he undergoes a heartening change of character, maturing gradually with the relics he lovingly collects from his exchanges with Füsun. The collection of objects he's amassed over those eight years vicariously illumine him on "the beauty of ordinary life," allowing to cherish these workaday museum pieces as "possessions in which to take pride." Kemal tells us that he becomes the "anthropologist" of his own experience, preserving "irreplaceable mementos of a lost world whose every detail figured in the meaning of the whole." Although his romantic liaisons with Füsun are affected by some tragic kismet, it is he who ultimately finds meaning and fulfillment in a city that is ostensibly without sincerity or consequence.
Perhaps the construct of a well-off lead like Kemal offers something incongruent to readers anticipating the Turkish everyman, but societies like the Istanbul painted in this sumptuous novel seem to proffer little redemption to the plights of the commoner, the peasant. Instead, we have the debonair Kemal, who, though inordinately blessed with material and intellectual riches, is likewise gifted with the keen introspection to observe the cancers of a society without the annoying didactics that often come packaged with impoverished heroes.
Yet, the other cast members in this novel too provide a charming foil to Kemal's complexities, beginning with graciously loyal chauffeur, Çetin; to his dapper friend Zaim; to the warm Aunt Nesilbe; to the reticent Tarik Bey; and finally to the real life writer himself, Orhan Pamuk, who agrees to collaborate with Kemal in recording his life in a novel. As an afterthought, the writer's character tells us that Kemal "was one who relished every moment of life, ever open to the world and to other people and possessed of a childlike optimism." For a score that advances in such an atonal and discordant progression, this marginal footnote completes a rather beautiful coda to this breathtaking tale of love and loss.
When the late John Updike proclaimed Mr. Pamuk as Turkey's likely contender for the Nobel Prize, he was judicious in meriting an author who represents not only one of the finest ambassadors of Turkish literature, but also a major international artist with insights of the greatest literary power. With The Museum of Innocence, Mr. Pamuk has proven himself once again as a novelist of great virtuosity, skillfully intertwining elements of a beautiful and melancholy romance with his excoriating, though subtly rendered criticism of his country's social mores.