Orhan Pamuk is one of those contemporary writers who exist in a cloud of mystery, charisma, glamour. As the recipient of the Nobel Prize, and holder of the informal – but still widely acknowledged – title as the most prominent Turkish writer in international literary circles, he’s in fact something of a celebrity. At least, that’s how it seems to me. Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Michael Ondaatje, Orhan Pamuk. He’s of that generation of prolific novelists.
The thing I’ve found with such writers is actually that their books tend to vary from the genius/virtuoso to the abysmally mediocre. McEwan’s peak was (imo) Atonement, Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Ondaatje’s probably The English Patient (haven’t read it yet, though, hence the ‘probably’), and Pamuk’s probably also Snow or My Name is Red. Then you get the weird and wonky anomalies: Solar, The Empress of Florence, The Unconsoled, Divisadero – books which make you cringe and make you wonder how the same writer could churn out two such different works.
Every work of literature is valuable in its own way, of course, and it’s unrealistic to expect writers to live up to some sort of standard set by their best piece of work – but the difference just seems to be all the more marked with these sorts of writers. Perhaps it’s a matter of editing? I’ve certainly noticed a similar trend in Murakami’s body of work (1Q84, anyone?) and somewhat hilariously in J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series (the books increase in size over the series, but not in quality – the earlier ones are so much tighter and wittier).
From what I’d heard of The Museum of Innocence, it seemed to be one of the mediocre ones, and so I’d planned on reading My Name is Red as my first Pamuk. I knew from the very title of this book, that The Museum of Innocence was going to be sappy, and long-winded, and self-indulgent – which is why I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself entranced by Fusun and Kemal’s doomed romance (despite being all those things above). I can’t explain the appeal. It was everything I was afraid it would be, but I loved it. I was entranced, and addicted, and absorbed in the world that Pamuk depicted.
As a synopsis/introduction to the themes in this novel, I’ll share an excerpt from the words of Orhan
“The Museum of Innocence” chronicles the love story of Kemal, an upper-class person, a person who is occasionally described as high-society. He is 30 years old in 1975 and chronicles his infatuation with a distant relative, a twice removed cousin, Fusun, an 18 year-old shop girl, but very beautiful. As sort of a compensation for his failure to get her hand, he collects everything he can get that Fusun touches, and in the end he makes a museum of the objects that their story is associated with.
One of the key themes in the novel is obsession, and the significance of objects as symbols of the things we cherish. Over the years, Kemal Bey accumulates an astounding collection of cigarette stubs, articles of clothing, porcelain dogs, postcards, medicine bottles, buttons, combs, earrings – all of which once belonged to his beloved Fusun.
What’s more astounding is that Orhan Pamuk assembled such objects, as might be found in the novel, into his very own museum – located in Istanbul, Turkey. Of this, he says:
My “Museum of Innocence” is a real museum too, which tries to pin down all these objects. I’ve been collecting things for this museum almost for six years. I bought a house which is actually where this part of the story has been taking place since about ten years ago. I converted it into a museum so the “Museum of Innocence” is both a museum and a novel.
The enjoyment of the novel and the enjoyment of the would-be museum are two entirely different things. The museum is not an illustration of the novel and the novel is not an explanation of the museum. They are two representations of one single story perhaps.
Why the Museum of Innocence, and not the Museum of Memories or Museum of a Life? I’m not sure if Pamuk would agree with my interpretation but I was quite unsettled by the idea, expressed through Kemal’s reminiscences in the novel, that the happiest moments of our lives are rarely recognized to be such at the time. And so this sort of ephemera, used in our daily lives, is a physical manifestation of our ‘innocence’ (i.e. lack of awareness) of the transient, fleetng nature of our happiness.
What would I include in my own museum?
- A little cloth tiger doll from the Muslim Quarter markets at Xi’an, to remind me of my year in China and all the life lessons learnt there.
- A little black leather Moleskine journal filled with momentos and ticket stubs and little notes that my boyfriend put together and gave me for our one year anniversary (right before I left for China, so a farewell present as well).
- A pale jade-hued stone seal (on which sits a carved horse that is more like a chimera of mule and dog) that has my name in Chinese characters carved on the bottom and some wolf and deer-hair bamboo brushes to represent my love of Korean and Chinese painting.
- Rolls of film, prints and a part of my camera collection: Pentax ME Super, Helios and other Soviet-era glass lenses, and plastic fantastic toy cameras – Diana F+ Qing Hua, Holga 120 CFN as a symbol of my love for photography.
And a myriad of other things that sit in my room right now – hardly a museum exhibition, just things I’ve amassed over the years.
How about you, readers? If you had a Museum of Innocence, what would you exhibit in yours?