Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Museum of Innocence

I have this thing with Orhan Pamuk. The great majority of his writings, I'm thoroughly bored with. But every once in a while I'm completely mesmerized by his mastery. Recovering from a full-day of teaching, I browsed through Border's this afternoon and picked up a copy of Pamuk's freshly translated novel, The Museum of Innocence. Thanks to a backlog in New Yorker issues, I only read the September 7th issue last week. Pamuk's "Distant Relations" hence seemed even more current. Let me digress, for a moment, and complain about the New Yorker's recent habit of packaging novel excerpts as "short stories." Enough of that. Sure, they make good advertisement for upcoming novel releases, but they also defy the power of the short story as its own genre. At any rate, one could feel it in the air. The publishing industry was gearing up for a big Pamuk release. Only last week, the New Yorker fiction podcast hosted Orhan Pamuk. He read Vladimir Nabokov's "My Russian Education," published by the magazine in 1948, three years before it was included in Nabokov's memoir Speak Memory (1951). Indeed, Nabokov and Marcel Proust are good precedents for Pamuk.

With a medium cup of Seattle's Best coffee in hand, reclining on a soft brown leather arm chair at a suburban mall in Lancaster, Pa., I found myself getting lost in 1975 Istanbul, and in the bourgeoisie universe of Kemal. The purchase of a gift for his fiancee (a fake designer bag) leads Kemal to an affair with his distant relative Fusun and the disintegration of his life. Already in the first 50-some pages of the novel, Pamuk initiates a wonderful game. The book becomes an exploration of middle-class Istanbul through the objects that Kemal accumulates as testament to his reawakening. Consider the objects Kemal collects after making love to Fusun. "Having become an anthropologist of my own experience, I have no wish to disparage those obsessive souls who bring back crockery, artifacts, and utensils from distant lands and put them on display for us, the better to understand the lives of others and our own." He picks up a floral batiste handkerchief to illustrate the solicitude of Fusun's caress. A crystal inkwell and pen that Fusun toyed with becomes a relic of refinement and fragile tenderness between lovers. An oversize belt buckle illustrates Kemal's masculine arrogance. And this accumulation will build up into The Museum of Innocence.

I am stuck. I have fallen for Pamuk's tricks. Last time this happened, it was with his Black Book (1990). Galip finds out one day that his wife has disappeared. He spends the entire novel wandering through the streets of Istanbul in search of her. Suspecting that she may have left with her half-brother, the journalist Celal, who is also missing, he moves into his apartment. The novel is interspersed with reprints of Celal's articles that his newspaper, Milliyet, prints during his absence. The rhythm of editorial essay and urban wandering make The Black Book into one of the greatest city novels (certainly the best Istanbul novel). Although I've desperately tried to love Pamuk, he has not always served me well. I hated The New Life, got bored with My Name is Red, and didn't even try Snow. Istanbul: Memories of a City was OK but not great. My friend Jennie Uleman, who started visiting Turkey in 2005, got me turned on to Pamuk again after his brilliant Nobel Prize acceptance speech called "My Father's Suitcase" (2006). My spotty on-off relationship with Pamuk is back on. I'm loving The Museum of Innocence. Its particular focus on the vitality of objects, memories and experiences puts it in the same league as Ulysses and In Search of Lost Time, modernism's archaeological canon.

In writing The Museum of Innocence (Turkish original, 1999) Pamuk engaged with the real Istanbul, bought a three-story house, which he turned into a writing laboratory . Read more about the physical Museum of Innocence, here. The building renovation is complete and the museum has opened its doors. I'm dying of curiosity to both finish the novel and visit the "real" museum.

2 comments:

Maria said...

I read your comments with great interest, as I am about to start reading the Museum of Innocence.
In a museum conference, recently held in Istanbul (http://www.camoc2009istanbul.org/index.php?id=3), I had the chance to listen from Pamuk himself all about his exciting museum project. Via a ten minute video he managed to communicate to the delegates essential ideas about the persons-objects relationships, let alone his personal excitiment on the project.
The Museum of Innocence, which will be located in the Cukurcuma district (not far from the more known Pera district), will open in summer 2010 although the project started almost 10 years ago (when the book idea was conceived). The project is set under the auspices of Istanbul Cultural Capital of Europe for 2010.

I'll certainly go back to Istanbul when the museum opens. It must be a very interesting example for collecting & museum theory and practice.

Best regards from Athens (Greece)

Marlen Mouliou

KOSTIS KOURELIS said...

Marlen, so great to hear from you and your insights about the Pamuk Museum of Innocence. I didn't know about CAMOC. The 2009 conference seems amazing. Thanks for leaving a comment. I couldn't put the novel down, although I must confess that the pages 300-400 got a little boring. I'm only 50 pages from finishing. It's developing into quite the love story. I would love to ask you more about CAMOC but also the Museum at Pyrgos. Send me an email at kkourelis@gmail.com. Thanks KOSTIS

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States