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Orhan Pamuk: Masumiyet Müzesi (The Museum of Innocence)

Obsessive love is, of course, a key theme of literature, from courtly love, such as the Roman de la Rose, to Lolita. Sometimes it works, particularly when, as in Lolita, there is a new angle and/or a brilliant writer using it. And sometimes, as here, it doesn’t really work. Around 550 pages (in the English-language edition) of a man’s obsessive love for a woman, punctuated with his life, stories of well-to-do Istanbul society and the deteriorating political situation in Turkey during the 1970s-2000s, would, I feel, need a lot more to make it as successful as his earlier novels.

Kemal Basmacı comes from rich family. His father has set up a very successful trading company, called Satsat, and Kemal and his brother Osman are now running it and doing very well. Kemal is engaged to Sibel, who also comes from the elite of Istanbul society. She is intelligent (educated in France), very attractive and very loving. In short, she will make an ideal wife. Contrary to generally Turkish mores, she is prepared to sleep with Kemal before marriage, even though this is a grave risk for her if the marriage does not take place. Kemal is a socialite. He knows everybody and spends much of his time dining, drinking and partying, when he is not with Sibel. One day, when he and Sibel are out together, she notices a Jenny Colon handbag in a shop window. (This is an in-joke, Jenny Colon being the obsessive love of the poet Gérard de Nerval and not a real handbag make.) The next day, he goes round to the shop to buy it for her. While there, he recognises the shop assistant as a distant relative by marriage, called Füsun. He buys the bag but when he gives it to Sibel, she points out that it is an obvious fake so he takes it back. Attracted to Füsun, he persuades her to come round to a spare flat owned by his mother to bring back the money owed. She is persuaded to come again and, eventually, they start an affair. Meanwhile, he and Sibel are planning a big engagement party at the Hilton. All the elite of Istanbul society will be there and Sibel and Kemal’s mother are putting much effort into this party. Kemal, meanwhile, with little remorse, is continuing his relationship with both women. He does manage to get Füsun invited to the party, though his motive is not clear, except to be able to see her. Füsun is busy studying for her exams (with the help of Kemal) but interrupts her studies for sex with Kemal and to come to the party.

The party is a great success, generally, but Kemal is not happy and drinks too much. Sibel is well aware that something is wrong but does not know what. The party takes up quite a few pages, as Kemal drifts through the crowd, catching glimpses of Füsun, talking to Sibel and mingling unhappily with his guests. However, after the party, Füsun effectively disappears. She does not come to their rendezvous, is not at her parents’ home and does not return phone calls. The rest of the novel is about how Kemal tries to track her down and woo her back. Kemal is, of course, obsessed, with her and he gives up pretty well everything to chase her. His business goes sour. He stops seeing friends. Sibel finds out and things do not go too well with her, of course.

There is one aspect to this story that is distinctive and that is what is indicated by the title. We learn very early on that he has created the museum of innocence of the title and it seems clear that it is a museum devoted to his obsession with Füsun. He seems to be collecting everything associated with her, even the tiniest of items, such as the stubs of all the cigarettes she has smoked. We learn that he buys items from collectors such as film posters of the films he has seen with her, long after the event. The whole purpose of this museum is only explained at the end. Apart from this museum and, perhaps, the description of the contemporary Turkish film industry with which he flirts, there is little in this story to get excited about, even the brief appearance of Orhan Pamuk himself as one of the characters and the description of Istanbul, with its various associations with Füsun.

Publishing history

First published in 2008 by İletişim Yayınları
First English translation 2009 by Alfred A. Knopf