After reading Orhan Pamuk’s wonderful book on writing, “The Naive and The Sentimental Novelist”, I felt it was time to explore his fiction. “The Museum of Innocence” is the first Pamuk novel I’ve read and I enjoyed it greatly - for the most part. Pamuk’s style is highly literary, very reminiscent of the 19th Century greats such as Tolstoy, Dostoyevski, Henry James, and their ilk. At first, this tone and literary voice was a little hard to reconcile with the late twentieth century setting (it’s set in Istanbul between the 1970s and the present) but after a while it just seemed a natural style for the story being told here, which is also very reminiscent of the 19th Century love stories. There are moments of 20th Century postmodern techniques mixed in with this very traditional literary narrative and this is what made it such an interesting read.
The story here is a love story - Kemal, an engaged 30 year old has a tryst with his 18 year old distant relation, Fusun, and becomes obsessed with her. His mistress one day disappears, sending Kemal in deep despair, a despair which eventually effects his engagement to Sibel. He finds himself spending time alone in his family’s second apartment, collecting and (literally) coddling objects that had belonged to Fusun: hair clips, earrings, and any other curio he could get his hands on. Eventually his engagement to Sibel is called off and he sets about finding Fusun only to discover that she had gotten married. He ingratiates himself into Fusun’s family, having dinner at their family’s house nearly every night of the week - for the next 9 years. With each visit, he collects any little object he can that reminds him of specific moments he spends with Fusun, and what at first looks like a man in love soon looks like a very unhealthy obsession. After the death of Fusun’s father, Fusun divorces her husband and Kemal works his way back into her life, to try to pick up where they had left off. You will have to read this novel to see how it all turns out.
In “The Naive and The Sentimental Novelist”, Pamuk discusses what he calls a novel’s “center”, which is, what the novel is really about under the surface of the story. While on the surface it is a love story, or a story about an obsessive love, the real story here is Turkish society in the 1970s and 1980s, where it struggles with itself to find its footing between tradition and entering “Europe” in the 20th century. The interaction between all the characters reflect this ongoing struggle for the “soul” of the nation and how it is trying to cope with modernity. While the story unfolds, bits of modern Turkish history serves as the backdrop: Leftist and Rightist forces fighting one another, military coups, Attaturk’s dream of a “modern” Turkey pit against the more traditional Islamist forces. Even the interaction between Kemal and his lovers, the struggle exists, wrestling with the more “modern European” ways of love, sex and romance and the more traditional culture, which always lurks over these characters no matter what they say, do or think. It also delves into the different worlds between upper class and peasant class in Turkish society (Fusun always being referred to as a "poor relation") and it is this look into upper class Turkish society (where Kemal comes from) that gives this book its 19th Century feel.
It is a very long novel. Perhaps a little too long, and this is my only criticism of it but one could also look at the lengthy digressions as a window into Kemal’s obsession with Fusun (since it’s told from Kemal’s perspective throughout), the excruciating minutia of her every move, gesture or gaze, or how these objects he collects reflect even the most trivial moments in their lives. I found myself distracted by these digressions, wanting the story to move forward.
Over all, it’s an amazingly written novel and quite deep when you begin to probe “under the surface.” Definitely recommended for those who never read him before. It was a fine introduction of this immensely gifted writer’s work.