A Novel Idea: The Museum of Innocence

This article was written for Yabangee.com
“The Museum of Innocence is a love story about carrying the memory of love – love, I think, being the symbol of innocence itself.”

So Esra hanım surmised, as I enquired about how she found the latest best-selling novel, The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk.

As I sat in the curator’s office, in the museum created by the author to embody his work, the monotonous hum of an electric fan provided blissful solace in the sultry heat that is August in Istanbul. “I don’t want to answer too many questions about the novel itself though,” she said. After all, these questions are best left to Pamuk.

Like most Turkish writers of note, Orhan Pamuk cuts quite a controversial figure. His views on Turkish politics, society and history, whether uttered by himself or alluded through one of the rich characters of his fictional works, have won him many enemies. Still, anyone who has read his previous works, such as the celebrated Snow or My Name is Red, will know that whatever the debate surrounding the man, his attention to the art of prose and the exploration of the human condition demands the respect that ultimately defines him as an internationally-acclaimed Nobel laureate. The Museum of Innocence is his latest work, and looks to earn him even greater acclaim.

However, the novel alone is not what has grabbed the media’s attention this time around. For, simultaneously, the Museum of Innocence is not just a novel, but an actual museum with the dual purpose of being a physical embodiment of the story, whilst preserving the not-to-distant past in which it is set.

The building is tucked away amongst the many dusty antique shops characteristic of the Çukurcuma area, slithering down through a maze of alleyways from Istiklal Caddesi to the Bosphorus. The building itself would be just another unsuspecting fin-du-siecle home, typical of central Beyoğlu, were it not for its boarded-up windows and thick lacquer of burgundy red, encompassing it as intensely as the beating sun.

Upon entering, you are struck by two clues as to the themes that inspired its creation – and you are stepping on the first one already. A giant black and white spiral spins out below your feet on the floor. Looking above from its centre, you can see banisters leading through every floor, right up to the bedroom of the book’s infatuated protagonist, Kemal.

For a book set in 1970s Istanbul, it is a interesting contrast already. For the faded colour of the walls, and browning nostalgic ornamentation leading up to the main displays, the spiral seems out of place. Having only waded knee-deep into the novel so-far, it was not too much of a spoiler to find out what this symbolised.

Kemal is more than in love. In fact, most would say he needs help. He is consumed by an obsession to savour the memory of the girl Füsan, the love of his life, and so he charges his friend, Orhan Pamuk, with the task of collecting, classifying and eternalising the story of his love in one place. This is so that the entire experience can evade the vulgar conception of time itself, and he can view every moment he experienced with Füsun as one blissful whole. The articles and objects viewed from his bedroom are thus suspended within a spiral, defying the abruptness of the typical this-happened-then-that-happened Aristotelian concept of memory.

Perhaps the more instantly striking representation of his obsession is displayed immediately next to the spiral, where 4213 stubbed-out, lipstick tinged cigarettes, which Füsun smokes in the novel (count them, if you like) are displayed like an eccentric Victorian’s butterfly collection, in a great wall display. Beneath each, a date is stamped, or an accompanying message signed to remind Kemal, and jolt the reader’s memory, of the time it was smoked. Each note is of course, written “In my own hand-writing, as requested by Kemal,” Pamuk notes on a sign next to the magnificent piece.

Visitors to the museum, from all over the world, can be seen walking from cabinet to cabinet, reading the novel as they admire the objects within. Aged packets of state monopoly cigarettes, original Yeşil Çam movie posters, wooden children’s toys, post-cards and black and white video clips of Istanbul, are all displayed together in a seamless sewing together of fiction and reality from a by-gone age. Perhaps, a more innocent age.

Pamuk’s motive however, has not been to provide an illustration to the book. The museum in its entirety serves as an art work to accompany the book, this is true, but at the same time it serves to preserve in posterity a period of a city ever expanding, growing and gutting out the old in favour of the new. “We are very unfaithful to our past” Esra hanım posits bluntly, “We don’t keep things. Istanbul, for example, has no city museum. This museum makes you relate to objects you wouldn’t relate to. What’s been lived, what’s being forgotten”.

Indeed, for most young Turkish readers, who make up half the visitors, stepping into the museum is like landing on another planet, only gleaned through the telescope of classic Turkish cinema. But to older Turkish visitors, it serves as a sentimental reminder of the past. Those who grew up in the 1970s will fondly remember aspects of the novel brought to life in the museum – the bingo tombola, the chocolate liquors served at parties.

Fusun's cigarettes, from the Museum of Innocence. (Nikos Vatopoulos)
“There are many antique shops around here,” I began, before being cut-off by the curator, predicting exactly where my line of enquiry was leading to. “Everybody knows him,” she beamed, with a smile which purposefully and gracefully undermined my overblown image of the writer as an entity apart from the city which has provided a back-drop to so many of his works. The media hype is probably somewhat to blame for my imagining Orhan Pamuk as some elusive polemic figure, appearing out of nowhere to perform book-signings, publish classics and charm Guardian interviewers.

Actually, Pamuk bought the building which would later house the Museum of Innocence in the mid-90s on a whim, after admiring the atmosphere of the area he passed while taking his daughter to school. Simultaneously, he had the idea of writing a novel based on objects, and began collecting small items, like old lottery tickets, ornamenting the house of Kemal and Füsun’s love affair with them in every chapter.

The pieces on display came into being in three stages – first, from the author’s own vast collection of items he worked from to inspire features in his novel. Secondly, a ‘creative team’ set about trawling the city for items created from his imagination, and the third set was created by hand. This is somewhat a betrayal of the secondary function of the museum as a ‘time capsule’ you might think – however, I guarantee that the cigarette display would have none of the same impact if accompanied by the stale stench of four thousand genuine cigarette stubs.

The Museum of Innocence is a physical piece of art, embedded in the reality of a time, illustrated through objects that carry a meaning in fiction: Even without having read anything of Pamuk, the concept in itself is an impressive feat of the imagination, like no other museum in the world. The intensity to which the line is blurred has lead Pamuk to face many questions from readers, curious as to just how close the writer’s own experience is to his main character.

“I am not Kemal,” Pamuk states over and over in interviews. However with a playful glint in his eye, he explains that “this is the contradiction that lies deeply in the heart of the novel; if I say ‘this is fiction’, or, ‘this is imaginary’, then I don’t want you to believe it”.

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