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.


MGM/Kobal Collection

Grace Kelly and Louis Jourdan in The Swan, 1956

Pamuk never dwells much on this, but for Kemal the afternoons he spends with Füsun, his secret love, are a kind of paradise, which he hopes somehow to preserve; yet within the unforgiving circles of a world that likes to consider itself conservative, however liberal its desires, these afternoons are really the opposite: they are his way of banishing his lover from Eden. In indulging his own pleasures, he has committed her to a kind of prison, as a girl who has lost her virginity and has nothing much to show for it.

It’s typical, indeed, of Pamuk’s precision that his character’s divided life plays out with reference to symbolic objects. Kemal first meets Füsun as an adult when buying from her a Jenny Colon handbag for his fiancée—and then draws closer when returning it after the fiancée realizes the bag’s a fake. Füsun, for her part, holds forth against the very brand-name consciousness that makes this issue of fakeness so important (and that generates, of course, a market for fakes). While she smokes Samsuns, Kemal wilfully champions fake Marlboros, “produced in the Socialist Republic of Bulgaria and smuggled into Turkey on ships and fishing boats.” Kemal’s lover sells fake handbags; his fiancée is the one who acquires them.

The one thing Europe has that Turkey can never have, Pamuk shows us, is an indifference to what Europe does or thinks. “In Europe,” Sibel says at one climactic moment, “the rich are refined enough to act as if they’re not wealthy.” In Istanbul—though again Pamuk might be writing about Bombay or Caracas or Amman—everyone ends up homesick as soon as they locate their desires abroad.

At a very early point in The Museum of Innocence, the narrator refers to himself as an “anthropologist of my own experience.” Later he will see himself as an “anthropologist” of his own society, as if describing it “to someone who knew nothing about Istanbul.” And though Pamuk lavishes most of his pages and attention on Kemal’s reckless, somewhat Humbertian courtship of Füsun, who now bends toward him, now skitters away, and to the way he starts filching objects from her parents’ apartment for his museum of obsession, it is really his anthropological impulse that carries the book and gives it its savor. After a while, it comes to seem that the main character in the novel, since the central lovers are a little sketchy, is the city in which they live. At the moment when the two make love, after nine years of waiting, “images of Istanbul in old films, snowy streets, monochrome postcards passed before my eyes”; clearly it is his hometown that is Kemal’s (and Pamuk’s) true soulmate and better half.

Those who read the writer’s memoir, subtitled “Memories and the City,” will recognize many things here, from the beautiful mother reading the society columns to the benign father who’s absent even when in the house; from the boyhood trips to buy coloring books from Alaaddin’s store to the adolescent rides with other young would-be Istanbullu playboys in their fathers’ Mercedes. Two foreign tankers collide in the Bosphorus here, as they did in Istanbul, causing much of the city to watch excitedly the fires that result. At the end, in a gesture that feels somewhat forced, Pamuk even suggests that Kemal is a mirror of himself—his Borgesian “Other” (to use a term he deploys in Istanbul and elsewhere)—who has asked “the esteemed Orhan Pamuk” to tell his story for him and whose secret apartment is only five doors away from the Pamuk Apartments.

As it follows Kemal on his long, slow journey back to innocence—turning away from Istanbul’s faux-European society, breaking his engagement with Sibel and going to spend every evening with Füsun and her parents in their modest flat, watching TV—the novel begins, in its second half, to show how, by trying to have everything, Kemal is left with nothing at all. Unlike Edith Wharton’s Newland Archer, he finds the courage to break away from his small world and its smaller rules, but, checking into a cheap hotel in an orthodox Islamic quarter, he ends up neither here nor there. He comes to know intimately the impoverished neighborhoods of Istanbul, as he chronicles “their muddy cobblestone streets, their cars, rubbish bins, and sidewalks, and the children playing with a half-inflated football under the streetlamps,” finding in their restlessness and melancholy a reflection of his own. “As I walked these streets,” he notes, “it was as if I was seeking out my own center.”

This makes, ultimately, for an unexpectedly conservative position on Kemal’s (and perhaps on Pamuk’s) part, that it is only by immersing himself in the old ways of Turkey, favoring courtly romance over contemporary passion, that he can begin to find happiness. In a curious way, he and his lover start walking, hand-in-hand, backward, as into a black-and-white picture, till soon “we were as shy, quiet, and prudish as if we’d just been introduced by our families with marriage in mind.” Pamuk has increasingly seemed given to nostalgia—much of his writing is set in an age of decline (there’s even a stray reference here to the Pamuks as one of the old rich families now living in the ruins of their glory)—and here, a little like A.S. Byatt in Possession, he seems to suggest that it is prohibitions and constraint that give the right meaning and pace to love. Füsun, a dyed blonde like many Turkish girls in the first half of the book, returns to her natural black hair in the second.

The second half of the novel, as is often the case with Pamuk, does not quite sustain the narrative excitement that propels the first—it is backstreets and lines of inquiry that hold Pamuk more than plots—but The Museum of Innocence points up, rather neatly, how this artist’s strengths are, in some ways, appropriately Janus-faced: no one has given us so unsparing and precise a sense of mock-sophisticated Istanbul society, and no writer has immersed us so passionately in a backward-looking, monochrome depiction of Istanbul in its neglected, traditional corners. As Kemal starts visiting Füsun and her parents for dinner every night, he might be romancing the indigenous city he’s never seen before, letting his chauffeur take him in his father’s ’56 Chevrolet to cinema gardens and restaurants along the Bosphorus, showing us old-money families who burn down their houses in order to erect apartment buildings in their place. Yet everywhere he comes across dividedness: we meet, in some of the book’s most delicious pages, the aspiring filmmakers of Istanbul in the late 1970s, who yearn to make their own versions of Godard or Truffaut. But they are left to support themselves by shooting soft-core porn.

I read The Museum of Innocence, as it happens, while staying in Istanbul, and at times in Pamuk’s own neighborhood of Nis¸antas¸ , the city’s Belgravia, where I was surrounded by chic new all-white hotels and boys from the countryside leading their chador-clad girls by the hand into Starbucks. At one point I even found myself at a society wedding at the Ç rag an Palace on the Bosphorus uncannily close to the one that Pamuk describes here. But it was also hard, in the fast-growing city, not to think of the India in which my parents grew up, or the Japan where I live now. As Pamuk has discovered, by drilling with such intensity and obsession into every corner of his own country’s insecurities, he has given voice to nearly every society in the world torn between the longing to be global and to be itself. If you watch the films of Mira Nair, for example, you will see, almost word for word, the same strains, as Indians in New Delhi mutter about the smoking and drinking habits their (often envied) relatives bring back from America.

As Kemal begins to describe the details of his museum project, and how he visited 5,723 museums around the world, alighting especially on those buildings that are like representations of a mind—Sir John Soane’s House in London, the Musée Édith Piaf in Paris—it becomes clear that this book is his own search for lost time. At one point, he specifically tells the character Pamuk about the Musée Marcel Proust, the Nabokov Museum, and the F.M. Dostoevsky Literary-Memorial Museum in Saint Petersburg, and even (a little implausibly since Kemal is a businessman not otherwise shown in the company of books) talks of reading Proust and visiting a museum just because Proust has mentioned it. It is Proust, clearly, who offers his Turkish disciple a way both to anatomize the small print of society and to amass, privately, and almost in response, a collection of madeleines.

As in Istanbul, though even more so here, memory becomes a kind of religion, and there is a sense, following Proust, that les vrais paradis sont les paradis qu’on a perdus. Yet for all his meditations on how “real museums are places where Time is transformed into Space,” and for all his talk of Aristotle’s notion of time and his own attempts to conquer it, it is Pamuk’s details that convey the point most beautifully. In the 1970s, we read, TV sets began to replace grandfather clocks as the way people told time (and the “East-West watches” show how even time is split in a society moving forward with one foot as it stands in place with the other).

Pamuk’s last novel, Snow, was something of a breakthrough, as he cut through all his literary arabesques to deliver a pulsing, very forward-moving story that nonetheless addressed, at its heart, his country’s confusions. Gone were the elaborate, virtuoso feats of invention and experimentation of The Black Book and My Name Is Red, with their dizzying turns on Turkey’s various identity crises and growing pains. In Istanbul he closed in even more on a tone of lyrical mournfulness that has come to seem his own. Now, in The Museum of Innocence, he manages to tell a very straightforward story of a dreamer in love—rendered lucid and fluent and human in Maureen Freely’s translation—that is, beneath its romantic surface, strikingly exact. It’s no coincidence, we come to see, that Kemal and Füsun first met, as children, at the Feast of the Sacrifice, or that it’s Grace Kelly movies that they watch in the family living room.

In recent years, famously, Pamuk’s own life has come to resemble an ironic and implausible story by Orhan Pamuk. After he made a stray comment to a Swiss newspaper in 2005 about how it is taboo in Turkey to mention the slaughter of one million Armenians and up to 30,000 Kurds, his claim was confirmed as he was brought before a court to face a three-year sentence for “insulting national character.” Though he was acquitted, and indeed was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, he was also increasingly ostracized in the place he so loves. When I was in Istanbul this summer, I saw his books in every bookstore, but when I mentioned his name, I was faced, more often than not, by embarrassed silences or evasions.

Now mostly living in New York, Pamuk is perhaps more prey than ever to an exile’s sadness, as he finds himself removed from his youth not just by time but space. In response, he has taken to memorializing every last linden tree and halwa seller of his hometown, and to constructing a literal, physical museum of memories that he is planning to take around the world as an exhibition. Some readers may remember how in Istanbul, he described the Istanbul Encyclopaedia he loved as a boy as “not so much a museum as one of those curiosity chests that were so popular amongst European princes and artists between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries.” His new book can be read as his own Istanbul Encyclopaedia, in which he gives dignity to Turkey by turning to Europe, and brings to life the pressures of the moment by looking to the past.

This Issue

November 19, 2009