I’ve only managed to read a measly eight books this year. Just eight. That’s three less than the 11 books I read in 2014. One of the reasons for the slump in my reading statistics is the time I devoted to each of these books. Orhan Pamuk’s ‘The Museum of Innocence’ has taken me the longest – a little over seven weeks to get through 728 pages. The large capital letters of his name have been by my bedside as a constant reminder that I have long neglected the bourgeoisie memoir.
The truth is; the novel didn’t suck me in the way I thought it would. The maestro’s 700 page story of a man’s obsessive love for a younger woman wasn’t exactly riveting. The first half of the story is a classic tale of reckless passion colliding with bourgeois standards. The latter is far more interesting and as the political upheaval begins to rock Istanbul, the book and the protagonist both undergo radicalization and change, as the neurotic kleptomaniac makes his way through the stations of his doomed love affair.
The love saga of Kemal and Fusan gradually becomes grandiose and unrealistic and makes the narrative a slightly difficult read. I literally forced myself to finish the book but only because I was reading Pamuk and I refused to give up on him.
For me the hero of the book is not the compulsive lover caught between his fiancé and his mistress. The true star of the book is Istanbul and Pamuk masterfully captures the essence and intricacies of the beautiful city as he chronicles the oddly timed love-affair. The novel masterfully captures a panoramic view of life in Istanbul and the identity crisis experienced by its upper classes who find themselves caught between all things traditionally Turkish and on the other hand the westernized way of life they were just getting used to. Istanbul is almost like a character in itself – it mirrors the characters’ own conflict as a city torn and ravaged by political upheaval. The vistas Pamuk paints are like monochrome reminders of conflicted people in complicated situations.
Reading the lavish descritpions of the city, I found myself closing my eyes to re- imagine the biting cold of January 2011 as I stepped out of the Atatürk Airport into the chilled winter air. Minutes later my minivan speeding through the serpentine roads and finally onto the magnificent Bosphorus bridge as the bejeweled skyline came into view alongside. Pamuk’s descriptions of the romantic city are exquisite and a delightful sensory journey not to be read but rather – experienced. I hope to go back to Istanbul some day and I’ve promised myself to read his novel with the same title when I’m there.
Coming back to the novel, it can be read and interpreted in multiple ways. It’s a love story, a political chronicle and a social commentary all rolled into one. At the end of it all, though Kemal does somewhat resemble the emotionally fraught Miss Havisham s the objects Kemal collects and adds to his ‘museum’ seem to pile up in his attempt to compulsively ‘freeze time’ – something that is not all that strange for the average person. There is something to be said for memorabilia, we value little things because they represent a connection with something important in our past. Many of us keep all kinds of memorabilia around and while I don’t believe those things intrinsically represent a threat to your present, they are part and parcel of who you are and what you have experienced.
A few months ago I blogged about my own ‘Cardboard box’ full of keepsakes and mementos that are vital scraps of my life. So much of who I am and what made me this way is confined therein. Kemal found love a little too late – he was an ordinary man placed in some extraordinary circumstances and his museum became his sanctuary. You and I may not obsess over memorabilia the way Kemal does in the novel but we sure do know what it represents and how much we value those memories when the real thing is long gone. Perhaps a book about objects of desire, so to speak, will make more sense to a reader who has had the pleasure (or displeasure) of being in love. Read it, you’ll understand why.
In conclusion, Pamuk’s novel is (if nothing else) a saga to the value of our memories and the place they hold in our lives. Having said that, there is one last thought I cannot shake – the funny thing about memories is that they only last as long as you remember them, don’t you think?