For those of you – who haven’t yet read Orhan Pamuk’s “The Museum of Innocence” (click here to read excerpts)– she is the heroine of the book and the subject of a tragic and obsessive love of the narrator, Kemal Basmaci – a rich Istanbulli playboy.
I discovered Pamuk a few years back with his – “Snow” – another riveting and haunting novel - which, I think, has been his most powerful book before this. As I don’t much care for historical novels – therefore, “My Name is Red”, for which he got the Nobel, didn’t quite appeal to me – though by all accounts it’s a masterpiece.
I think it was Kingsley Amis who said, writing is the ultimate form of telepathy. Through books thoughts are transmitted over time and space – and the author enters the reader’s mind. The Museum of Innocence is that kind of a book. It is almost maddening in its minutiae. He does not just invade your head but possesses it. Time and again thru’ its 532 pages, I have wondered if he’ll be able to pull it off – only to be surprised at being drawn inexorably to the next chapter as if in an hypnotic trance.
It is tantalizing in its Hemingwayesque simplicity of narration. There is a hallucinatory quality about the love story of Fusun and Kemal, painted against a rich backdrop of upper-class Istanbul society in the cusp of modernity (".... poised uncomfortably between modern and traditional attitudes to love and sex, with eros half out of his cage, but honour and shame still coordinating the perception of private conduct" as one critic puts it so beautifully. Inncocence, obviously, refers to virginity: "Kemal is happily engaged to Sibel .......who as he puts it – 'given me her virginity',...... and before long Fusun too has 'deliberately elected to give her virginity'.... and she vows not to sleep with another man - the deflowering is ominously juxtaposed with images of the Feast of the Sacrifice, with lambs being butchered on every corner of Istanbul" - James Lasdun, in The Guardian)
For me, the description of Istanbul in 70s and early 80s is not very unlike the Calcutta we grew up in - give or take a few years either way. Fusun’s family gathered around the television is so reminiscent of the good ol’ Doordarshan days. The art film scene of Istanbul could easily be compared with vintage Tollygunj of the same period. At some point, Kemal makes a remark : I had forgotten what I had forgotten (or something close to that effect). I was overcome by a similar feeling a few months back, when – following my Mother’s death – I was in Calcutta for one of the longest period of time in recent years. Chatting with visitors – friends and relatives – who were dropping by brought back a stream of memories (of people, objects and places) that I thought had had long ago slipped away from my cumulative consciousness.
Great literature – they say – teach us something about ourselves. Reading ‘The Museum of Innocence’ we recognize the shades of Kemal (or for that matter Sibel or Fusun ) in us. And like him, we too have nuggets of trivia and trinkets stacked in the attics of our brain – our own little Museums of Innocence.
"I would hate for it to be called a love story," said Pamuk in an interview. "The book is an exploration of how life treats us, how people, circumstances and geography — the chemistry of streets in Istanbul, for instance — change, and we mortals are left helpless as things go beyond our control."
Going by the graphic story-telling, it would be natural to surmise that, at least in parts, it is an autobiographical novel. Answering this - by now what has become a routine question for him at all Book Reading Sessions, Pamuk teases : “ Kemal is not Orhan, but then I can’t convince you that Orhan is not Kemal... (tho') the only similarity between them is that both "were having a good life in a poor country"( so true for the India you and I live in too). The challenge for a writer, we know, is to keep the reader guessing as to what is fiction, what is reality. That is the master novelist for you.
I am sure that, thanks to the publicity he got for the new woman in his life, Kiran Desai - there age difference - 57 & 38 - almost the same as that of Kemal and Fusun (click here). ‘The Museum of Innocence’ will out-sell all his previous books in India. Probably realizing that (or the influence of his girl friend) , Pamuk throws a generous smattering of India in to his book – such as the Tagore Museum in Calcutta or the Halal restaurant in Delhi. But, one thing’s for sure – after this Turkey will feature high on my list of places I want to travel to (just as, I belive, Goa has suddenly become popular with Turkish tourists after Orhan and Kiran have dropped anchor there to work on their respective new projects). May be I’ll go there in time for the opening of the Pamuk Museum