the museum of innocence

The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk.

I picked this book up at Costco, several weeks ago.  I feel faintly embarrassed admitting that I bought a book at Costco – it smacks of following the herd, of abandoning my own taste and opinions to buy whatever it is that big publishing companies and Oprah’s Book Club have declared to be “a good read.”  However, as I skimmed past the Danielle Steeles and innumerable Twilight knock-offs, this cover caught my eye:

Intriguing!  Seductive!  And a Nobel Prize-Winner?  I figure it’s hard to go wrong with someone who’s won the Nobel Prize.  And – it being Costco – the price was right.  My interest further fueled by a review stating “Pamuk has created a work concerning romantic love worthy to stand in the company of Lolita, Madame Bovary, and Anna Karenina” (Financial Times), I decided to go for it.

So, how was it?  I was definitely reminded of Lolita – not so much of Anna Karenina.  I haven’t read Madame Bovary, so I can’t comment.  It brought to mind a mish-mash of Lolita and Love in the Time of Cholera, but set in Istanbul, with loving and meticulous attention to the details of that city.  The story follows a young, wealthy man – Kemal – who is engaged to marry a girl of similar social and economic status.  However, before they are married, he falls in love with a younger woman: Fusun, a lower-class store clerk, who is also a distant relation of his.  He becomes utterly and irrevocably obsessed with her, and his love for her takes over his entire life.  At first he won’t leave his fiancee, so Fusun breaks off all contact; then, unable to rid himself of his passion for Fusun, Kemal breaks off his engagement.  Unfortunately for Kemal, in the intervening time, Fusun has become married herself.

For the next eight years, Kemal devotes his entire life to the pursuit of Fusun, and the collection of any and all objects that have been connected with her, from cigarette butts to saltshakers.  He finds solace in these objects when he cannot be near her.  Eventually he decides to open “The Museum of Innocence,” which will display all of these objects in dedication to Fusun, her life, and their story.  The book itself is presented as an accompaniment to the Museum, a sort of enormously expanded catalogue which will help visitors to understand their story and the meaning behind the displayed objects.  Orhan Pamuk presents himself as the author that Kemal contacted to write the catalogue, and at the end of the book addresses the reader directly, in his own voice.  (The rest of the book is written in the first person, from Kemal’s point of view.)

The Museum of Innocence was  an exploration of love and obsession.  Like Love in the Time of Cholera, it tracked an obsession that lasted for years with little encouragement – a love story, but for most of the book, a curiously one-sided one.  The story was anchored in its place and time in a way that was absolutely essential to the story.  It has been said of Orhan Pamuk that Istanbul is the greatest love and greatest character in all of his work, and the city’s boulevards, cafes, bars and waterfront, as well as the nuances of wealthy Turkish society, frame and structure the story of Kemal and Fusun.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book, for me, was the museum itself.  We all imbue everyday objects with great significance, for whatever reason – they may bring to mind joy or sorrow, humiliation or hilarity.  When objects become associated with the beloved, they take on a special significance, and for Kemal, an all-consuming importance.   With the Museum of Innocence, he tried to take those objects which had such meaning for him, and arrange them in such a way that they would take on that same meaning for strangers who came to visit the museum.  Through the careful presentation of his collection he would make his love for Fusun, and their life together, come alive for the visitor.  Kemal transferred his love for Fusun to the thousands of objects he collected, and with the museum hoped to keep that love alive forever by using the objects to transfer the experience to other people.  “Real museums are places where Time is transformed into Space,” he writes on p.510.

The Museum of Innocence explored how love and longing can colour every aspect of our life, from the simple objects around us, to our work, friendships, and single glances or the brushing of sleeve against sleeve.  It made me uneasy in the same way as Lolita, while at the same time bringing forth a sort of wistful envy.

So, overall, recommended!  However, it wasn’t MY book…  In the introduction to one of my favourite books, Independent People (by the Icelandic writer Halldor Laxness, also a winner of the Nobel prize), Brad Leithauser writes that when he first read Independent People he knew he had found HIS book.   Reading it, he had the feeling that Independent People had never meant so much to any other reader as it had meant to him; that he was its perfect reader.  I agree.  I think that no matter how good a work of literature is, we will find books that have great personal resonance for us.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that we identify with the main characters; Brad Leithauser probably doesn’t identify too much with Icelandic sheep farmers.  But the book spoke to him.  The Museum of Innocence was a great book, but it didn’t resonate with me personally.

What a strange alchemy…  How can you predict personal resonance with a book?  It changes over time, as well; I’ve returned to books that I didn’t find particularly meaningful the first time I read them, only to find them speaking directly to my deepest self, years later.  It is always worthwhile to read great works of literature, whether or not they strike that particular harmonic frequency within you… but when they do, it’s food for your soul.



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