Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Museum of Innocence

The Museum of Innocence
By Orhan Pamuk

Reading Orhan Pamuk is always an experience one gets down to with the slightest frisson of anticipation and The Museum of Innocence was no different. Having just got my head around his previous work My Name Is Red, I wondered if this book too, would be as difficult to assimilate with multiple narrators and a complicated plot. I need not have worried. The book was delicate, nuanced and for me, unputdownable.
In his  previous novel, Snow, Pamuk took the headscarves, symbolic of religious morality and looked at them as indicative of a country ready to assimilate into the Western world. In My Name Is Red, his focus was on the Ottoman miniaturists back in the 16th century who were proscribed from depicting anything apart from what is acceptable by religion, and the formula, in an era where the European masters were breaking free to find their own individual styles, from an individual's perspective rather than what is accepted as the norm.
Instanbul is the protagonist of The Museum of Innocence. The story is rather wistful, rather like the Indian equivalent masterpiece Devdas, albeit with different characters caught in similar circumstances of longing and long unfulfilled. The story is intimate. A love story that tells the reader of the doomed love of kemal, a rich young resident of Instanbul who gets into an affair with a distant cousin Fusun, who is wholly unsuitable to be married to, because of her inferior social standing. In the interim, Kemal gets engaged to Sibel, who is a 'suitable girl' and Fusun distances himself from Kemal.
Like Devdas is unable to stand up for his love to his father and sinks into ruin and despair because of that one moment of spinelessness, similarly Kemal is unable to tell his family that he would rather marry Fusun than the more socially acceptable Sibel. In fact one gets the impression that Kemal assumes he would be able to give up Fusun once he is married to Sibel, only to find that with Fusun out of his life, nothing matters anymore except getting her back.
Kemal is supposedly running his father's export company but gradually slips into a dangerous obsession to woo Fusun back. He gathers together mementoes from their days together at the family's second apartment creating a Museum of Innocence. Everyday items like —"a porcelain saltshaker, a tape measure in the form of a dog, a can opener that looked like an instrument of torture, a bottle of the Batanay sunflower oil that the Keskin kitchen never lacked"—are hallowed and venerated because he associates them with Fusun and their short doomed relationship. The novel goes on to describe how Kemal collects the 4,213 cigarette butts smoked and stubbed out by Fusun, how he visits her family for dinner over 2,864 days, the obsession borders on Humpbert Humpbert's obsession with Lolita and is as raw and naked in its yearning. Shades of Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera peek through, in the scale of the monumental love that overtakes all the protagonist's sensibilities.
Through Kemal's disintegration as a man with promise into a middle aged drunk obsessed with Fusun and having given up his entire career in the hopes that he would woo back Fusun, one feels a repulsion mixed with curiousity and empathy for the way a man loses himself in a love which is plainly, not to be. The end of the love story comes as no surprise, when Fusun finally agrees to marry Kemal, and then drives herself and Kemal into a horrific crash, one realises with a sinking feeling that the love not fulfilled is always more all pervasive than the love story that succeeds despite all odds.
Running parallel to the story is the evolution of Turkey as a society on the fringes of the Western world, and still moored deeply to tradition. Set in the late 1950s through the 1960s, the narrative is a fond reminscensing of a city that was divided almost schizophrenically into those mired in the headscarves and religion, and those who adopted the ways and manners of the more liberal Westernised world.
It is a long journey for Kemal to where he wants to be. Breaking his engagement to Sibel. Courting a naturally suspicious Fusun, convincing his mother that he would marry Fusun, and finally their coming together after nine years, only to have her die in a horrific crash the very next morning. His wooing of Fusun over nine years of daily dinners in her modest home, his filching of everyday objects from her home, like a fetishist, is what adds the pathos to the novel. Symbolically, Fusun, who is a bleached blonde in the first half of the book, returns to her natural black hair colour in the second half, the half that has Kemal turn his back on the ways of the Europeanised strata of Instanbul society and checks into a seedy hotel in the impoverished sector of Instanbul.
The protagonist meets the author in his quest to set up a museum dedicated to the memory of Fusun, and Pamuk very kindly talks to the protagonist about his memories of Fusun, having entered the narrative as a character during Kemal's doomed engagement party to Sibel, in a Hitchcockian device that he often uses in his novels.
The Museum of Innocence is a book that stayed with me for days after I had completed it, overwhelming me with a sense of loss and despair that had nothing to do with the loss of the possibility of a life together that the lead characters suffered. Instead, it haunted me with its implied message that obsession in love can obliterate an individual completely. And ironically, we are never quite rid of the niggling feeling, that despite the altar that Kemal puts Fusun up on, she is possibly just an ordinary shopgirl.
Reviewed by Kiran Manral

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