The Museum of Innocence

May 14, 2012

Orhan Pamuk, born in 1952 to a wealthy but waning Istanbul family, is Turkey’s best-known, best-selling, and most controversial novelist. Cevdet Bey and His Sons, published 1982, was awarded the Orhan Kemal and Milliyet literary prizes; The Silent House, received the Prix de la découverte européene in 1991. With The White Castle and The Black Book he achieved international renown, particularly for his evocative and experimental exploration of Istanbul, past and present. Snow, which he describes as “my first and last political novel” was published in 2002. In 2003 he received the International IMPAC award for My Name is Red. His books have been translated into 46 languages. Not all of them are great, but some of them are. The Museum of Innocence is one of the great ones.

In 2005, Pamuk, was pilloried and put on trial for “insulting Turkishness,” his crime having affirmed that Armenians and Kurds had been killed in Turkey. He decamped for New York. An outraged Nobel Committee responded by awarding him the Nobel Prize for literature. But times have changed. Pamuk has now returned to Istanbul, where he has been rehabilitated as a national treasure. A proud road sign at the crosswalk pointing to his newly-opened Museum of Innocence was installed by the municipal government.

Pamuk’s rehabilitation and his gift for self-promotion—almost as great as his gift for writing melancholy novels about Turkey—are still a touchy subject in Turkey. As I walked in, an American with a notebook asked me if I spoke English. When I replied that I spoke excellent English, he introduced himself. “I’m from the New York Times—”

“I’m from the Globe and Mail.” We laughed and briefly considered quoting each other in a tribute to Pamuk’s postmodernism. A Turk, overhearing this conversation, was visibly nauseated. It’s all so American, he said, this marketing, all the media. Must Turks be like that, too? (Just a few blocks away, a museum in honor of the novelist and essayist Orhan Kemal, one of the giants of the golden period of modern Turkish literature, remains largely unknown, unadvertised and unvisited.)

There is something vulgar about building a museum, in effect, to oneself—one could hardly imagine Tolstoy working industriously on the Mausoleum of Anna Karenina, even if a museum devoted to evoking the relics of St. Petersburg society of the epoch would be splendid. There are of course many museums devoted to celebrated writers—one may view, for example, Dicken’s manuscripts, letters, drawings by his illustrators, first editions of his books, his desk, his pictures, his books and other memorabilia at the Dickens Museum in London; the Maison de Victor Hugo in Paris became a museum in 1903. But of course both were long dead before their homes became pilgrimage sites. Alexander Pope had the vision to transform his grotto in Twickenham into a museum while he was still alive—but it was a museum of mineralogy and mining. Pope, apparently, walked the walk as well as he talked the talk: “Trace science then, with modesty thy guide; ?First strip all her equipage of pride; ?Deduct what is but vanity, or dress, Or learning`s luxury, or idleness.” Pope, interestingly, failed to realize that future generations would be far less interested in his views on mineralogy and mining than his views on vanity. (It is amusing that Dr. Johnson charged him with vanity nonetheless: “Vanity produced a grotto where necessity enforced a passage.”)

Is Pamuk’s museum an act of vanity, then? No, not at all. It is a genuinely interesting work of art. It is not so much an homage to his eponymous book as an aspect of it, he says; from the moment he conceived of the project, in the 1990s, he imagined the novel and the museum as two representations of a single story.

The novel is one of his great accomplishments, and the idea of representing the story in two forms is ingenious. Of course, the idea can only work if one writes a novel about a museum. The novel is about more than this, though: It is about love, and it is about Istanbul, and it is about the power of artifacts to evoke nostalgia. It is a long—perhaps excessively long—account of Kemal, an idle Istanbul playboy, and his florid obsession with Füsun, a lower-class shop girl twelve years his junior. Unable to possess her beyond the initial heady days of their affair, he spends years contriving simply to be in her presence—suffering even the company of her “fatso” husband—whereupon he pilfers and collects artifacts connected with her. He consoles himself by touching the things she has touched; the things she has worn—ultimately transforming Füsun, who in the book is never herself a fully developed character—into a fully-developed museum of objects consecrated to his obsession with her.

Although the story takes place largely in Pamuk’s childhood neighborhood of Ni?anta??, the museum is in Çukurcuma, the neighborhood—in the novel—where he discovers Füsun living in “a dreadful house … a rat’s nest with its mud and its floods.” Here something did not go according to plan: Pamuk purchased the building 15 years ago, when Çukurcuma was sufficiently dilapidated to suggest the distinction in social class between Kemal and Füsun that he evokes in the novel. Çukurcuma is now so gentrified that the threads mixing memory and desire have been frayed, and the museum is out of place.

Yet the neighborhood apart, to enter the museum itself is to feel that past evoked, and it is to feel the book—and indeed an entire era and culture—evoked. It is a bit like reading the script for a play and then seeing its performance. The museum is as carefully crafted as the book, presenting in meticulous display cases and boxes the items used and collected and discussed by the novel’s characters, and managing somehow to make them compelling rather than disgusting—not an easy trick when one of the exhibits comprises 4,213 cigarette butts, each supposedly, smoked by Füsun. It is the minute attention to detail that spares this display from grotesquerie—the butts have been pinned to the wall like a lepidopterist’s prized treasures (Füsun’s penchant for butterfly-shaped hairpins, too, reflect the homage to Nabokov); there is something fascinating about the author’s handwritten notes, beneath each butt, and the lipstick stains—each the same shade—or the lack of lipstick, and the way some cigarettes are half-smoked, others stubbed to the core in a suggestion of rage. (The tobacco was in fact vacuumed out, Pamuk explained, to detract worms.) The earrings, the hair clips, the ticket stubs, the saltshaker, the drinking glasses—they are all ordinary objects, not self-conscious objets d’art, but the effect of considering them together is to enter both an ordinary world and a madman’s obsession; and that is precisely the intended effect. It works, almost too painfully: Who among us has not been reluctant to part with the archeological relics of a lover long gone, caught at the throat by the sight of some dumb old thing—a toothbrush, a sock—and who has not felt that to discard it would be to discard all that is left of love, even memory itself?

The love and memory on display here (in 83 showcases, some accompanied by audio and video installations, each corresponding to a chapter of the book), are not merely that of Kemal for the vanished Füsun, but Pamuk’s for the vanished Istanbul of his youth, the “irreplaceable mementos of a lost world whose every detail figured in the meaning of the whole.” Istanbullus of a certain age roamed the museum with expressions of tender recognition—“Oh yes, we remember that”—the brand names, the film stars, the high-society gossip columns, the photographs of women from newspapers of the epoch with black bands branded across their eyes. (Such was the fate of women who had sex before marriage, and equally the fate of the cad who had defiled her, for the girls’ fathers often took them to court.)

Yes, this is in one sense a vanished world—younger visitors were clearly puzzled by some of the items on display—but in another sense, there is a direct connection to the Istanbul of today, at least to the one I know, where the upper-class, secular world imagines itself free and modern, but is in all its most important aspects patriarchal and authoritarian to the core. Sons, as Pamuk has written of his own family, still lack “the courage to make the final break,” and as Kemal’s mother warns him, “In a country where men and women can’t be together socially, where they can’t see each other or have a conversation, there’s no such thing as love … Don’t deceive yourself.” It is still true. Istanbul’s women still obsess over foreign handbags and chic restaurants; and they are still, somehow, not fully-realized characters; romantic love is still strangled by religion and tradition. To walk into the museum is to walk into the past—but you are not walking all that far.

What is not in the display cases is as notable as what is on display: There is no hint of the political backdrop to the events in the novel, with which Kemal, at least, was too self-absorbed to concern himself overmuch, although he mentions them in passing. Examining these glittering hairclips and the black-and-white photographs of the epoch, one would have no clue that right-wing and left-wing assassins were daily drenching the streets in blood, nor that the stage you are witnessing has been set not only for years of fetish-collection but for years of martial law.

The museum’s aim, Pamuk says, is to suggest that there is no special reason an ordinary life and its ordinary objects ought not be viewed with the curiosity and reverence we bring to museums. “If objects that bring us shame are displayed in a museum,” he observes, “they are immediately transformed into possessions in which to take pride.” I would have scoffed had I not been so entranced by the cigarette butts. Of course, this is only true if the ordinary life and its ordinary objects are evoked and curated by someone with the ability to make artistic meaning out of them; were it not, every dullard’s apartment would be a museum. That this is not so suggests that this is a unique experiment, unlikely to be repeated.

“The ultimate aim of the museum’s design,” he adds, “is to make the visitor lose all sense of time, life’s greatest consolation.” This sentiment has been expressed before, and perhaps better, by Nabokov: “I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip. And the highest enjoyment of timelessness—in a landscape selected at random—is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love.”

But if Nabokov remains the greater prose stylist, let us give credit to Pamuk for transforming the visitors’ trip into a literally novel idea.

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