‘Real museums are places where Time is transformed into Space.’
This was one of my most keenly awaited reads. While ‘The Black Book’ remains my favourite of the lot, ‘The Museum of Innocence’ is an engaging novel, not as effortless as some of his other books, but potent enough for a melancholy, characteristic of Orhan Pamuk’s writings, to descend upon me. My mind will not be at rest until I can experience Istanbul for myself since Orhan Pamuk (hereafter referred to as OP) writes so masterfully about it. From his writings it appears to be a city struggling with its cultural and political identity, a city trying to come to terms with the changing mores. OP points out in his semi autobiographical ‘Istanbul’ that unlike other languages, in Turkish there is a word to describe the melancholy of a city, ‘huzun.’
In most of his books this melancholy pervades through the novel’s landscape and exercises much influence on the protagonists. The novel starts with following line ‘It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn’t know it.’ This captures the fleeting nature of happiness and beauty, and Kemal, our protagonist spends a considerable part of the novel chasing happiness in the form of an elusive Fusun Keskin, and after rediscovering her , loses her tragically. Kemal is betrothed to Sibel and both of them belong to wealthy and westernized Istanbul families. Their lives are proceeding as per the script and their wedding is a highly anticipated social event. Hw just before their engagement, Kemal discovers love in an impoverished and a younger distant relation, whom he begins to meet clandestinely and this affair will go on to change the lives of the three principal characters. He is torn between happiness and shame at not adhering to the norms, torn between taking it ‘too seriously or too lightly’, and this confusion only grows as his affair with Fusun intensifies. Though the city displays all the external trappings of modernity, it’s struggling to view the more sensitive societal topics through the same lens. Kemal is a reflection of this and he is suspicious of Fusun since she had ‘given herself up so easily’ even though he knew that Fusun was one who believed that ‘love was something to which one devoted one’s entire being at the risk of everything. But this happened only once in lifetime.’ Also the Keskins were once closely associated with Kemal’s family and enjoyed a cordial exchange with the society, which had since shunned them due to Fusun’s participation in a beauty pageant. Kemal is wary of the precarious situation his transgression puts the two women in but still goes ahead with the engagement to Sibel, and with an intention to continue his tryst with Fusun. The writer mentions that the ‘Istanbul society was such a small and fragile circle that the deep shame of any member was no less universally felt than in a small family.’ His relationship with Sibel is a well know fact and the society grins and bears this transgression because the couple belong to affluent families and also because it has for long been assumed that this relationship would lead to an engagement and a marriage. Sibel is therefore not in a position to walk away from the relationship for fear of disgrace given her intimacy with Kemal before her marriage, besides she does love him too. Fusun meanwhile has neither a fortune nor a social standing to fall back upon, and is indeed risking her all given the bleak future for the relationship.
Post the engagement, Fusun and her family disappear and it is in this period of separation from Fusun that Kemal realizes that the happiest moments in his life were the ones spent with Fusun, his anguish captured in the following lines ‘, In fact no body realizes the happiest moment of their lives as they are living it…Because how could anyone, and particularly who is still young, carry on with the belief that everything could get worse.’ As his search for Fusun takes him through the length and breadth of Istanbul, his relationship with Sibel veers towards an unhappy end. Sibel though suspicious deep within of the reason for her fiancée’s indisposition attributes it to ill health, and tries to nurse him back to health and the old times when they were carefree lovers. They relocate to a Yali (wooden cottage) at the banks of the Bosphorus in the hope that the beautiful surroundings and the many distractions of the city will help achieve this but as the writer suggests it is too late for Kemal. ‘It was during these days that I first began to feel fissures opening in my soul, wounds of that sort that plunge some men into a deep, dark, lifelong loneliness for which there is no cure.’
It is during this period of separation that Kemal turns to collecting objects and souvenirs associated with Fusun because as he explains that lovers even on their worst days ‘still carry in their hearts a consolation that never abandons them.’ This is because of the ‘astonishing power of consolations that objects held,’ hw he also goes on point out that the consolation though ‘making the agony bearable, prolongs it.’ After a year of disappearance he rediscovers the Keskins in a non decrypt part of Istanbul. Fusun is by now a married and her husband lodges with the Keskins but this doesn’t deter Kemal who will visit them regularly over the next eight years, in the hope that Fusun would marry him someday. He also continues to collect, in fact steal objects from the Keskin household never realizing that ‘there might be objects enough to fill rooms and whole houses, because for the better part of the eight years that I sustained myself with the conviction that it would be only a few more months, six at most, before I could bring Fusun around to marry me.’ Kemal’s intention, as he also suspects, were never hidden from the Keskins, who reestablish contact with him in the secret hope that he will be a benevolent financer for Feridun’s (Fusun’s husband) foray into the film business. As he experiences a rollercoaster of emotions on these visits the most notable being jealousy, he’ll continue to visit for moments which will ‘restore his life’s beauty’ such as Fusun’s smile or when the chance meeting of their eyes, which his stubborn heart construes as an acknowledgement of a mutual love. After a long wait of eight years, Fusun does come around to marrying him but this happiness is short-lived since she dies very tragically. And it is to ‘relate our memories with such sincerity as to transform individual happiness into a happiness which all can share’ that he’ll create a museum of all the objects that he has collected. The essence of the museum and this tragic love story, and Kemal’s need to create a museum is well captured in his categorization of himself as a bashful collector, one who ‘collects purely for the sake of collecting. Like the Proud, they begin – as readers will have noticed in my own case – in pursuit of an answer, a consolation, even a palliative for a pain, a resolution of difficulty, or simply out of dark compulsions. But living in a society where collecting is not a reputable act that contributes to learning or knowledge, the bashful regard their compulsion as an embarrassment that must be hidden. Because in the lands of the bashful, collections point not to a bit of useful information but rather to a wound that bashful collector bears.’
By sheer coincidence I finished reading the book on Valentine’s Day. Not qualified or equipped to review a book of this scale, so here are a few quick observations on it. It’s a love story, a tale about the identity, conscience, passion and heartbreak of the protagonists, Kemal, Fusun and Sibel but above all, it’s a love letter to Istanbul, a muse with a melancholic disposition but bewitching nevertheless. The author at times is critical of the city, of the societal rituals and double standards, but it’s evident that he is mesmerized by the city and its huzun. The novel’s landscape will be familiar to those who’ve read the other OP books like ‘The Black Book,’ and ‘Istanbul.’ There are the familiar sights, sounds and characters such as Aladdin’s store (which actually exists), the Yalis (wooden cottages at the banks of the Bosphorus) which were so beautifully described in ‘Istanbul’, the Bosphorus and her ships and steamers, the familiar streets and Celal Sadik the columnist. This novel therefore feels like a continuation of his other books. The principal characters are all reflections of the city in the changing times, their indecision, the inherent guilt and actions, a reflection of mores which many in developing countries will also relate to. As Kemal rues somewhere in the novel that one is cautious of being too happy in such a scenario, and the angst reflects in these lines. ‘After drunken evenings like this, as I drifted in and out of sleep, I was beset with painful thoughts: that my youth was well and truly over; that (as was the case for all Turkish men) my life was taking its ultimate shape before I had even reached the age of thirty-five; that I would – could-never again know great happiness.’ I heard OP say in one of the interviews that Turkey’s fate wrt to the European Union will not only shape Turkey’s identity but also that of the European Union and that the hesitance of the EU to welcome Turkey brews discontentment in Turkey. Also there is disconnect between symbols of modernity and social mores given the manner in which symbols of conservatism were done away with in a hurry, to achieve west’s definition of modernity. These questions of identity I think are recurring themes for many of us in the developing world too. May be the author will scrutinize this theme further in his next book, which as one of his more recent interviews (on his recent visit to India in Feb ’10), he plans to write in Goa, the theme being the life and times of an Istanbul street vendor in the times of globalization.