Turkey's Struggle with Modernity
It's getting late in the Istanbul of Orhan Pamuk's new novel (his first since winning the 2006 Nobel prize), late in almost every sense of the word. Not dead, far from that, but the hours are small and time itself seems to be running down, as though the whole city were a memorial to its own better days. Though when was that? Under Ataturk, maybe? Or possibly before, in the Ottoman past that lies all around but of which the book's characters can hardly ever speak. It is an old city, so old that in 1975, when this stately and intricate novel begins, its principal narrator, Kemal Basmací, still drives a 1956 Chevrolet. Yet paradoxically, that's also a sign of its youth, for Pamuk's Turkey itself has come late to a modernity that its citizens identify with the west.
Kemal and his friends in Istanbul's moneyed bourgeoisie speak dismissively of those who seem too "Turkish", and the women in their set go in for blond dye-jobs. His fiancée, Sibel, sees herself as a modern young woman which means that she isn't a virgin, though she only started to sleep with him "when she was absolutely sure that there would in the end be a wedding". They use the office couch at his family's export business; the employees know, and snigger a bit. Still, it's important not only that they have sex but that they're understood to have it by the few other young people in their world, who like to congratulate themselves on their bravery.
One day Kemal's eye is taken by a designer handbag the perfect gift, or so he thinks before Sibel tells him it's fake. By then, however, his eye has also been caught by the sales girl. She's a distant cousin called Füsun, a relatively poor relation whom he hasn't seen in some years, and her name carries a hint of scandal, for she's now a lustrous 18 and her parents have let her compete in a beauty contest, swimsuits and all. At first, it's just a seduction. He thinks of her as even more modern than Sibel, and love doesn't come into it. But when he discovers her "growing amazement" at the new world of sex he introduces her to, their afternoons together become an obsession. She knows of his engagement and he knows he must give her up and he will, any day now. Then she disappears, and he learns that her family has moved.
It will take Kemal almost a year to find her again, a year of driving through every neighbourhood of the enormous city, months of heavy drinking in which he loses all interest in Sibel, even after they move in together. Sibel hopes to save him from what seems an inexplicable sadness, and learning the truth enrages her. To her, Füsun is just "a common shopgirl", a slut, even though they have each only slept with one man. She breaks off their engagement; but that is only the start of Kemal's separation from the social world he had once thought to inherit.
Kemal cherishes every physical relic of Füsun that he can save or steal: a barrette, a salt shaker she once touched, the little china dog that sits on top of her family's television. Those objects eventually find their home in the museum of the novel's title, a shrine to everyday life that he will spend his last years in building. Both his collecting and The Museum of Innocence itself are best understood as examples of what Pamuk elsewhere calls hüzün. It is the Turkish word for melancholy, but hüzün has a more complicated weight than the English term. It carries a theological understanding of the "place of loss and grief", it sustains notes of elegy and nostalgia, it conveys a sense of "worldly failure [and] listlessness", and it stands above all as the defining emotion of this post-imperial capital.
So to both author and character, Istanbul's every place and moment of beauty seem as if irradiated by sadness. That makes the novel a modern-day counterpart to the masterpiece Pamuk set in the 16th-century city, My Name Is Red; and certainly it's a richer book than its predecessor, Snow. It does have weaknesses. Most of Kemal's friends are names rather than fully realised characters, and however vivid his desire for Füsun, she herself remains a bit shadowy. The novel, too, could have been shorter. Yet the story isn't so loosely built as it seems, and it's hard to say just which meal or moment of longing should go. The Museum of Innocence earns its length, a length that allows Kemal's story to burrow into us, a habit one looks forward to indulging.
In its last pages a minor character named Orhan Pamuk reappears, a figure last seen as an awkward young man at a party. The metafictional moment makes one pause; this has been so entirely satisfying as a realist narrative. But the step into a different kind of writing is so sure-footed that it only reinforces the power of Pamuk's central conceit, Kemal's fond foolish dream of a museum built to honour his love for Füsun, his lost paradise of their days together.
(R) thedailystar.net 2010