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Secret Love in the Lost City

Dominique Nabokov
Orhan Pamuk, New York City, May 2006

Istanbul, with its many signs of the time when it was the center of the world, becomes something of a museum in the work of Orhan Pamuk, a writer clearly in love with memory itself, and his hometown, and everything that’s been lost there. In his 2003 memoir, Istanbul, the five-story Pamuk Apartments in which he spent nearly all his first five decades are described as a “dark museum house,” cluttered with sugar bowls, snuffboxes, censers, pianos that are never played, and glass cabinets that are never opened. The people inside the rooms have something of a neglected and left-behind quality, too; they’re devoutly attentive to the fashions and perceived habits of Europe, and yet they know (or at least their sharp-eyed chronicler does) that Europe is spending very little time thinking of them.

Foreigners, Pamuk notes in that book, love to enshroud his city in easy, abstract terms of “East and West”; for him, the real division at the heart of his culture is between local tradition and the imported new. And it is in giving that tension a vividly human, private face—in showing how it plays out in every piece of chewing gum or choice of a Sophia Loren movie—that he gives his theme distinction. It was his growing up in a secular, westward-looking family, Pamuk suggests, that moved him to seek out his country’s indigenous, sometimes mystical traditions; a further irony is that he learned how to give Turkey its own voice by schooling himself in works from abroad.

As a young man, his great hope was to become a painter, and he started, he notes wryly, by producing imitations of Monet and Sisley and Pissarro in a city that Europe had always seen as alien, putting Utrillo shutters, as he has said, on Istanbul houses that had never known such. The result might have been odd and hybrid, but it was inarguably new, neither typically Western nor traditionally Turkish. It was the West, in fact, that showed him what to value in his own culture, and even how to dream of becoming a writer (“This isn’t Paris, you know,” he quotes his mother saying, in trying to dissuade him from pursuing art).

Pamuk made himself up, in other words, by living in foreign books. Dostoevsky offered him the precedent of a ferociously energetic writer, just outside the boundaries of Europe, who turned his raging eye on the issue of how European—or otherwise—his country should become. Nabokov taught him how to caress every detail of the time-stopped, sensual world of his privileged boyhood. Most of all, Proust showed him how to create elaborate fantasies out of his memories, and how to find a universe of feeling in even the smallest detail. Pamuk looks at Europe’s great tradition with a fascination and devotion that few contemporary Europeans would muster (it’s hard to imagine Ian McEwan or Michel Houellebecq earnestly citing Sir Thomas Browne or Montaigne, as Pamuk does); and in doing so, he catches instantly his own—along with his country’s and much of the developing world’s—uneasy position between the indigenous ways they are determined to hold on to and the globalized world they long to belong to.

The Museum of Innocence may be Pamuk’s most intimate and nuanced exploration of these stresses yet. On its surface it is a characteristically roomy and discursive love story that tells, across 530 pages, a relatively simple and conventional tale of Kemal, an idle, rich young Istanbullu (not so far from Pamuk, he implies), courting a teenage girl. Kemal runs an export company given him by his father, but spends most of his time slipping into a second apartment his family keeps in order to woo, obsessively, Füsun Keskin, an eighteen-year-old shopgirl at the S¸anzelise (as in “Champs-Élysées”) boutique, whose mother sews dresses for society women like Kemal’s mother. Between 1975 and 1984 or so, the two come together, part, and circle around one another till she comes to seem indistinguishable from the beloved city of his youth. In creating, many years afterward, a Museum of Innocence that gathers together items associated with their courtship—“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”—he is effectively constructing a monument to love and hopefulness and, most of all, to the place that nurtured them both.

In the many pages describing how Kemal collects 4,213 of Füsun’s cigarette butts, visits her family’s home for supper over 2,864 days, and recalls their early afternoons together, Pamuk unfolds a classic, spacious love story a little like a Nabokovian version of Love in the Time of Cholera (other books are so much a part of his sensibility that one finds oneself reaching for such comparisons). But for most readers, I suspect, what will bring the long, slow romance to life is the much more particular love story hidden within it, of the author’s real passion, for Istanbul. The engaging and somewhat awkward Kemal and his beloved, out of “old Persian miniatures,” sometimes feel like archetypes; the uncertain, semi-cosmopolitan Istanbul of Pamuk’s upbringing is so specific, it comes to seem universal.

Pamuk’s great feat, in this novel, is to evoke the particulars of a society built on received ideas. The people of high-society Istanbul chatter about Harrod’s and go on skiing trips, bring back parasols from Nice and meet at the Cercle d’Orient. One character customarily dismisses others by calling them “too ‘à la Turca.’” Inevitably, these borrowed surfaces contain a poignancy. In the late 1950s, Pamuk tells us, Turks loved to boast of being the first to own an electric blender, or a can opener or an electric shaver. They eagerly brought back mayonnaise makers from Europe—only to find that no spare parts were available for them in Turkey, so these great symbols of the new became, very quickly, relics.

Kemal’s best friend in the city, Zaim, is—not coincidentally—introducing the first locally made soft drink to Turkey, plastering huge ads around Istanbul that feature a blond German model next to the slogan “You Deserve It All.” The hunger for status symbols is so intense, in fact—some Muslims buy Christmas trees—that canny entrepreneurs acquire bottles of the trendy new drink and fill them with a much cheaper local equivalent, to sell at a profit. Some Turks wear “East-West” watches, with Arabic numerals on one face and Roman on another.

Every detail, in short, speaks of a culture of quixotic aspirations. And what gives Kemal’s position special drama is that even as he’s kissing Füsun in his apartment of stopped clocks, he is officially engaged to a much more socially approved woman, Sibel, who is newly returned from France, the daughter of a retired diplomat. The society pages are aflutter with reports of the perfect couple, at the very moment when Kemal is making love to Füsun, hours before his engagement party. Much like Turkey—and, again, like many places in the developing world, so confused in their hunger for global cachet—Kemal wants to be a good Turk, playing by society’s rules, even as he longs to be an honorary Westerner, taking pleasure wherever it suits him. Like his creator, however, he’s ruminative enough to see that neither he nor his country probably ever deserve it all.

The Museum of Innocence develops, therefore, into something of a rich and almost-modern Age of Innocence, translated to a confused world that doesn’t know quite how modern it wants to be. The affluent, internationally minded Istanbul that Pamuk describes from within has a crushing sense of comme il faut even as it yearns (as some would put it) to be au fait ; and in the 1970s it is this mercilessly precise sense of hierarchy and custom that is trying to exert its power as more and more young Turks begin to sense larger freedoms and possibilities. The era in which the book is set (much like the America of twenty years before) is the time of the first disc jockeys in Istanbul and the first psychoanalysts, of anxious discussions of the first beauty contests and models, which many both disapprove of and hunger after in the same breath. It is even the time of the “first Islamic porn films,” copied from European sex manuals bought off the black market and completed, somehow, without the principals taking off their underwear.

In his last novel, Snow, Pamuk homed in on the issue of headscarves in eastern Turkey, to see how much his country was ready to unveil itself; in his previous novel, My Name Is Red, he looked at the Ottoman miniaturists of the sixteenth century, trained to efface themselves in the creation of almost formulaic sacred art, at the very moment when they are encouraged by European trends to work out their own individual styles, with a man’s-eye (not a God’s-eye) perspective.

Now, in The Museum of Innocence, he extends his discussion of his country’s torn ambitions by concentrating on sexual freedom, and all the vexations of a society determined to be “liberated” even as it is reluctant to let go of its habitual assumptions. Pamuk’s young men are gawky and shy with women—his thirty-year-old protagonist has never seen a kiss offscreen in Turkey—even as they go off to “high-class brothels” in which girls make themselves up as Western movie stars; his young women swan off on shopping trips to Paris and London, while being told that they must be virgins on their wedding day (or discreet, at least, about their hypocrisies).

Pamuk misses nothing when it comes to the uncertainties and pretensions that result. It’s not quite a case of how will you keep the kids in Istanbul after they’ve seen Paris, but rather one of how to keep the young content with no sex before marriage after they’ve watched how it’s done in Europe. Women in gilded Istanbul don’t necessarily want arranged marriages, and yet they don’t know how to find men on their own. Turkish doesn’t even have a word, we learn, for “flirt.” The upshot is a little like an Istanbul version, appropriately twelve years late, of Philip Larkin’s celebrated line, “Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three.”

These terrors and insecurities all come to a brilliant climax in the central set piece of the novel, a bravura forty-three-page chapter on the engagement party of Kemal and Sibel—held at the Hilton, of course (which sits in the center of Pamuk’s Istanbul like a great Trojan horse), and fueled by black-market “European” champagne acquired under the counter. All of Turkish high society assembles in this great tableau—a huge scene, after twenty-three earlier chapters of roughly five pages each, mostly focusing on the young lovers back in their shuttered apartment. Everyone present knows how to read appearances, even as the real concern of each one is the pressures building within.

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