Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Maureen Freely
In spite of its heft (500+ pages, or 20.5 hours if you let the perfectly-paced John Lee read to you), not much really happens in The Museum of Innocence. I’m adding here the requisite spoiler alert, but I’m fairly certain that most readers will guess the outcome lonnnggggg before the final pages.
In Istanbul in 1975, rich man Kemal (30) falls in love with poor distant relation Füsun (18). Kemal goes ahead anyway with his long-planned engagement to perfect partner Sibel; Füsun disappears. Kemal finally breaks off with Sibel, finds Füsun, waits eight years for her to dump her “fatso” husband (by going to her family’s home some four times a week). Füsun dies. Kemal builds a museum to her memory, filled with everyday objects from her life (4,213 cigarette butts alone!). He passes on April 12, 2007 [hence today’s post] on what would have been her 50th birthday. A character named Orhan Pamuk authors the dead man’s obsessive story.
In supreme irony, that writer-character – “chain-smoking twenty-three-year-old Orhan” – makes his first appearance at Kemal and Sibel’s lavish engagement party. Kemal disses the young man as “nothing special,” then dismisses the entire Pamuk table – “his beautiful mother, his father, his elder brother, his uncle, and his cousins” – as “tedious.” Four hundred pages (and some three decades) later, that tedious young man morphs into “the esteemed Orhan Pamuk,” whom Kemal chooses to “[narrate] the story in my name, and with my approval” – which might remind devoted Pamuk readers that this meta-Orhan announced he was writing a new novel titled The Museum of Innocence about half-way through the real Pamuk’s Snow.
Kemal confesses on the second-to-the-last page of Museum that although he read Snow “all the way to the end,” it proved to be “a bit of a struggle” given his dislike of politics. Snow‘s protagonist Ka even gets a quick mention in Museum as meta-Orhan laments over the public’s accusations of misrepresentations in his work – which might make you consider why Kemal would choose this Orhan as his mouthpiece. Apolitical a character as Kemal might be, Museum merely glosses over class, East/West identity, restrictively gendered mores, the nature of literature (and so much more), for the numbing details of Kemal’s fixated stalking and skeezy kleptomania. By book’s end, perhaps we can just blame this meta-Orhan for all the novel’s weaknesses.
When I lamented over my grave disappointment to an erudite literary scholar buddy (because I knew he’s a huge fan of Pamuk’s Snow), he mentioned the post-Nobel curse that’s plagued other great writers like J.M. Coetzee; he also admitted he never finished Museum. Pamuk won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature; his gorgeous Nobel Lecture, “My Father’s Suitcase,” makes for a heartfelt antidote to Museum. Interestingly, an actual museum is apparently still planned to open in a building that Pamuk bought in 1999 in the Çukurcuma neighborhood of Istanbul, where much of the novel is set.
Which means .. if, after you’ve read Museum, and still haven’t had enough of this obsession, rest assured, your entry is guaranteed on page 520.
Tidbit: I can’t believe this turned up in my inbox less than an hour after I hit ‘publish’ for this post: The Innocence of Objects – Pamuk’s catalog of the objects in his real-life Museum (!) – debuts this fall! The timing feels surreal!
Published: 2009 (United States)