THE MUSEUM OF INNOCENCE
by Orhan Pamuk
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, © 2008, translation © 2009 by Maureen Freely; Hardcover, 531 pp
The Museum of Innocence is Orhan Pamuk’s first novel since 2006, when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Like several of his earlier books, this novel takes place within the framework of a Turkey still struggling with its identity, a struggle that has been going on since the defeat of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Mustapha Kemal Attaturk’s “modernized” Turkey during the 1920’s and ‘30’s. The traditional mores and beliefs of the old society rub up against the Western influences which are strong in the lives of the middle-aged people and a simple fact of life for the young, although there are some holdovers like the importance of a bride’s virginity, particularly for the lower classes.
Pamuk’s novel takes place in Istanbul in the 1970’s and ‘80’s, and involves Kemal, a man in his thirties. He is well-traveled and educated, and works for one of the family’s businesses. To our Western minds, his laid-back attitude toward his job is distressing, but then, to him, the Americans he has observed are much too intense in their work ethic. Kemal has a privileged child’s expectation that his inferiors will do the work, and sees nothing wrong in indulging in his own satisfactions at the expense of his workers and servants. Witness a wonderfully drawn character, Cetin Effendi, the family’s driver who is happy to drive Kemal on his various adventures.
His wealthy family and privileged social position make Kemal extremely desirable to the mothers of daughters who want them to marry well. As the book opens, he is about to become officially engaged to Sibel, the well-educated and very modern daughter of a family also of wealth and position in Istanbul society. They plan a large, elegant engagement party at the Hilton Hotel, the desirable place for such events.
While buying a purse for Sibel, Kemal encounters the beautiful Fusun, a “shopgirl” (read: “sales assistant”). She is a distant step-relation to Kemal, who remembers her from her childhood when her mother, his mother’s dressmaker, used to bring the child along to fittings at Kemal’s home. Fusun’s mother and father are considered to be the family’s poor relations, deserving of charitable attention.
Fusun, at the age of 17, entered a beauty contest, not at all the sort of thing a well-brought-up Turkish girl should do, causing Kemal’s mother to express her extreme disapproval. At the time when Kemal finds Fusun selling purses in the upscale shop, she is just 18. He is instantly smitten by her, and in short order entices her to meet him in one of the family’s unused apartments (where his mother stores unused furniture and clothing) during her daily lunch hour They begin an affair of such intense ecstasy that Kemal cannot conceive of giving her up for his intended marriage to Sibel.
As the date of the engagement party approaches, Kemal believes that he can go through with the marriage only if Fusun consents to continue the relationship despite his marriage. His obsession with her is so intense that he begins to take bits and pieces of material objects (the butts of cigarettes she has smoked, an earring, a cup from which she drank, a barrette left she behind), keeping them in a collection in the apartment that is their meeting place. The objects console him even when she is not there. Eventually he convinces himself that she will allow him to keep her as his mistress.
Pamuk’s description of the engagement party is both funny and nightmarish. Fusun attends as a guest, and Kemal spends much of the time in a jealous rage, watching her dance with others, largely ignoring his fiancée.