The Museum of Innocence

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
Pamuk himself:

“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?

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7 thoughts on “The Museum of Innocence

  1. Am not very enamored with this bunch of contemporary writers–Rushdie, Ishiguro, McEwan, believing that their being prolific has more to do with their being the darlings of the academic-literary publishing complex than a genuine gauge of their writing prowess (well, except perhaps for Pamuk which I really believe is brilliant). Thus the unevenness of their oeuvre, although I don’t deny the quality of some of their works. But yes, Pamuk’s juxtaposition of the novel and a real-life museum is ingenious (and perhaps speaks much of the author’s own obsessions apart from his excessive self-consciousness too). It’s amazing how particular objects can crystallize a certain moment or emotion. This novel must make one feel so nostalgic.

    1. Yes, I agree completely. I do love certain aspects of Ishiguro’s work, and I definitely still love Atonement – but I can’t stand them for the most part. It’s mostly their arrogance that turns me off, I have to say.

      I’ll have to read more of Pamuk before I can comment on him though. But my overall impression of him has been that he carries that same overbearing confidence which flows negatively into his work… it’s telling, isn’t it, that The Museum of Innocence is one of his latest ;)
      They seem to grow more and more cocky with time!!!

  2. You said: “… the happiest moments of our lives are rarely recognized to be such at the time.”

    Quote from Elizabeth Strout: “There were days—she could remember this—when Henry would hold her hand as they walked home, middle-aged people, in their prime. Had they known at these moments to be quietly joyful? Most likely not. People mostly did not know enough when they were living life that they were living it.”

    One of the things I would definitely put in my museum would be this bookmark by my son which is a tiny piece of paper torn from a sheet. On one side he wrote, “Love you Mom Goodnite.” On the other, “its for evry nite.”

    I will defend Ishiguro and Rushdie with my life! I felt Rushdie’s cockiness evident in Fury, but that was the only time I felt it to be off-putting. Apart from Midnight’s Children, I consider The Moor’s Last Sigh and East, West to be his best works, though I’ve yet to read The Satanic Verses. I know your stand on The Enchantress of Florence but I absolutely adored it, every page, from start to finish. (At least we disagree on something, right?) It must be my penchant for fantasy and fairy tales, and my love for all books that evoke a similar feel as the Arabian Nights.

    After having read all of Ishiguro’s books I can only say I wish there were more. I’m not sure but did you also not like When We Were Orphans? I thought it was a gorgeous novel. And not many were impressed by Nocturnes but I was head over heels for it. I guess beauty really is in the eyes of the beholder, no?

    I can’t comment on McEwan as I’ve only read three of his books, two of which I super loved, though. Ondaatje, have read only two, one loved, one didn’t like. Pamuk, have read only one and thought it was brilliant (Snow). I’m waiting for your thoughts on My Name is Red and see how you feel about that. :)

    1. Claire! Haha alas, we disagree on something!

      Okay, Ishiguro I love. He’s endearing. I do respect what he does, but I feel his reputation somewhat exceeds his contribution. As in, no matter how much I try to see something new in his work, I can’t shake off the feeling that he’s a one trick pony. And you probably know how I feel about those ;) When We Were Orphans was gorgeous, and I loved A Pale View of Hills. Remains of the Day, not so much. While I feel that’s the work where he really perfected that narrative style of his, I found it more clever than arresting. Again, I found the idea of The Unconsoled so fascinating, but the execution was terrible (much like what I’m feeling towards 1Q84 at the moment).

      With Rushdie, I really shouldn’t let my impressions of that one book get in the way, but I’ve not really been so curious about him since. I’ll definitely need to read more of his works someday, especially that one you recommended before, I think it was Shalimar?

      I’ve actually started on My Name is Red, and it’s been brilliant so far, I love it! It is clever, and flashy and a little cocky, but the writing’s great, there’s no doubt about it.

      1. I haven’t read Shalimar the Clown. My favourites of Rushdie are The Moor’s Last Sigh and East, West.

        Ishiguro isn’t a one trick pony! His books are all so different! The first I read by him was The Unconsoled so even though it’s not my favourite I’m partial to it because I was so young and it was the first time I had ever read something like it in my life. I think When We Were Orphans is probably my favourite of all.

        Have you read any other by Rushdie? The Enchantress of Florence is very evocative of The Arabian Nights and it’s a specific style appealing to particular readers, maybe? You might want to try something less “fantasy-like” by him, although he really borders on it, most of his books are magical realism to the utmost. I haven’t read that many by him as well, only six, and he’s written a lot of books. I plan to read them all (even though I didn’t like him in Fury)!

        I just remembered I’ve a copy of The Idiot here, might add to your Russian reading month. Ambitious! Hope I don’t burn myself out again! :)

        1. Hehe might have been someone else then. Well, apparently Shalimar’s real good.
          Hmmmmmm. I think we’re definitely disagreed on Ishiguro then. Having said that, I am very loyal to him, though – I’ve read all his stuff and will probably read him every time something new comes out!

          With Rushdie, I’ve only read Enchantress of Florence, it might be a case similar to Murakami where I read Norwegian Wood first, and was almost turned off him, but then I read Kafka on the Shore and a few of his other works, and I had a broader understanding of the kind of writer he was.
          But like I said, after Empress, I kind of lost curiosity.

          OK I’m going to read East, West and The Satanic Verses, since my local library has copies, and I’m even going to re-read Enchantress just to see if I was wrong about it the first time. From memory, I didn’t like how florid the language was. But tastes can change between 17 and 22 ;)

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