Orhan Pamuk’s first novel after his Nobel dazzles with the power of memory’s retrievals, says Arul Mani
THE READER may gather, from the manner in which this book opens, that Orhan Pamuk is not a nice man and has no intention of serving up a novel that tells a good story and delivers a reliably medium message. The first line has the narrator describing a profound sense of well-being that releases him from “gravity and time” as he makes energetic love to a woman who is not his fiancée. The other intimation of mala fide intentions is in the name he gives this narrator; Kemal, meaning ‘perfection’, which is perhaps a sly joke at the expense of the man who went from being a mere Mustafa to Ataturk, from army officer to architect of Turkey’s modernity. Our Kemal probes the silences of that modernity ceaselessly.
Kemal Basmaci is about to be engaged to Sibel, who has proved that she is “free and modern” by surrendering her virginity to him, when he chances upon Füsun, a distant relation. The 18- year-old has slid down the ladder of respectability because she has taken part in a beauty contest and is now employed as a shop-girl, but Kemal is instantly smitten and, after a brief pursuit, experiences the moment of weightlessness we have already described. The four weeks leading up to the engagement are days of stolen rapture; the complications eventually catch up with him. Füsun chooses to disappear and Kemal can find consolation only by returning to the apartment where their trysts occurred to caress and classify the objects associated with that time. It takes him a year to find a way out of the moral quandary he has before him, but when he eventually decides to risk all for love, he finds that there is some waiting to do. It is around then that his obsession with objects grows into the museum of the title.
Kemal may lurch from “a great allconsuming beatitude” to an unspooling of the soul and then to renewed hope, but at no point does his ardour in being an anthropologist of his own experiences ever flag. The reader who persists will thus be treated to reflections on kissing, to acute observations of Istanbul social life, to animadversions on virginity of the preserved and the lost varieties, to accounts of a widespread albeit futile gadget-love, to new metaphors for the action of lovesickness, to a list of inconsiderate Füsun look-alikes who turn up everywhere, to a careful accounting of days and hours, to the history of the tombala, to the complex workings of censorship in Turkish cinema, to the many distinct joys that museums offer, and to an entire chapter composed of sentences that begin “Sometimes we…” while the narrator conducts his romance through carefully calibrated glances within a cramped living room.
The unsure reader may gain some insight into Pamuk’s fiction from his essay in the New York Review of Books responding to the 9/11 attacks. The essay ambles through the puzzled conversations he had with fellow-Istanbullus after the event to offer the idea that people not of the West struggle to overcome the humiliations of recent history without losing their common sense, that this sense of defeat pervades a “grim, troubled private sphere (which) neither magical realistic novels that endow poverty and foolishness with charm nor the exoticism of popular travel literature manages to fathom.” The Museum of Innocence uncovers that troubled private sphere by superimposing the energetic zigzagging and genre-bending of fiction upon the many genteel tussles — between rapture and melancholy, between Asia and Europe, between the religious and the secular — that emerge from Istanbul, his book-length reflection on the city of his birth. With this book, Pamuk spins a complex enchantment that celebrates the capacity of fiction to retrieve memory and selfhood from the relentless barrages of the modern.
If you must read just one novel this year, let down the draw-bridge of your caution and rush out to embrace this one.