By Patricia H. Kushlis
Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel, The Museum of Innocence, tells the tale of an attractive and wealthy thirty year old man’s obsession with an eighteen year old shop girl who was also his distant cousin. The story is set in 1970s Istanbul, a different and far poorer city than today. In this book, Pamuk sprints, then almost painstakingly strolls, through the separate but interconnected lives of the westernized elite, the idiosyncratic Turkish film world and that of a lower-middle class family all set against an outside world of the country's ongoing political turbulence and economic stress.
Political murders were commonplace during those years, nightly killings transpired on the city’s streets between left and right and Pamuk hints that perhaps Turkish security forces themselves played murky roles in the carnage. The military coup of 1980 ended the escalating urban violence and ushered in a more stable era. But Pamuk leaves an important question unanswered: whether and by how much the Turkish “dark state” was involved itself in underwriting the unrest. A question that still echoes today.
Istanbul of the late 1970s was a difficult place to reside or even visit. I well remember visiting friends there in January 1979: the petrol lines were long. The Turkish lira was nonconvertible and inflation was high. Imports were almost non-existent but the markets were filled with fresh produce from the countryside and fish from the seas and the Bosphorus - even in winter. Internal migration was rampant and the city’s public services were overwhelmed by the influx of peasants from Anatolia - but Islamists did not figure prominently in Pamuk’s world of the time.
Füsun, Kemal’s shop-girl cousin and love of his life, for instance, was a secularist: her father was a retired lycee teacher, her mother a seamstress to the rich and her dream was to become a movie star – likely to be filmed in the scantiest of clothing. She was protected from this fate by Kemal and her filmmaker, arranged-marriage husband who successfully thwarted all offers made. True, she was not over-protected by a head scarf or more restrictive Muslim garb, but the two men’s devious ways of keeping her from her dream had a similar effect.
Pamuk has written about this historical period in earlier works – the time of his youth - and featured it in his non-fiction book Istanbul which was published in 2006. He began The Museum of Innocence before Istanbul but finished it afterwards. It provides fictional bookends to his shorter non-fiction account of the city at the time. In The Museum of Innocence, Pamuk’s focus is on the lives and interactions of his two main protagonists: Kemal and Füsun in a story told from Kemal’s point of view – we never learn until the ending climax what was going through Füsun’s head whereas in Istanbul Pamuk’s own story of his youth, his father, his family’s and friends' lives were the driving force.
The city itself is Pamuk's real love
Book reviews in The New York Times and The New York Review of Books suggest that Istanbul is Pamuk’s – and his chief character Kemal’s real love - not the shop-girl Füsun - but the city itself. This book, unlike Pamuk’s others which I thought should have included maps but didn't, opens with one of the lower middle-class district of Çurcucuma where Füsun lived and where Pamuk himself intends to build a real Museum of Innocence to house the collection of ordinary objects that Kemal, his main character filched from Füsun (which he would then replace with more expensive ones), and that are described in the novel and provide glue to the tale.
In reality, Çurcucuma is not that far geographically from Kemal’s own home in upscale Nişantaşi but in terms of the characters’ personal wealth and social status, the two locations are worlds apart.
It’s sometimes difficult to understand why Kemal was so besotted by this rather ordinary shop girl that he not only broke his engagement to Sibel, an attractive European educated Turk with a similar background to his own, but then also pursued the elusive Füsun relentlessly for eight years thereafter. His pursuit of her became his life: his obsession ultimately unintentionally contributed to her abrupt death just when he thought he (and she) had achieved happiness.
Orhan Pamuk, The Museum of Innocence: A Novel, New York and Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 536 pages. Translated by Maureen Freely.