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BOOK REVIEW

'The Museum of Innocence' by Orhan Pamuk

The protagonist of the Nobel Prize-winning author's new novel takes romantic attachment to the extremes in a sensuous tale set in Istanbul.

October 21, 2009|Tim Rutten

When the Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk was invited to give the annual Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard this fall, he chose as his title "The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist." Kemal, the protagonist and first-person narrator of Pamuk's latest, "The Museum of Innocence" may be naive and sentimental -- as well as willful and self-absorbed -- but the author of this mesmerizing, brilliantly realized new novel is anything but. Pamuk, who has taught comparative literature at Columbia, became the first Turk to win a Nobel when he was awarded the 2006 literature prize. He is that rare thing, a creator of sophisticated, intensely literary fiction, who is also his country's bestselling writer. In part, that's because of his work's accessibility and his willingness to adapt conventionally popular genres, like historical and detective stories, into multilayered, character-driven novels.

In his acclaimed novel "Snow," for example, a series of suicides among village young women forbidden to wear Islamic head scarves becomes the backdrop against which conflicting notions of tradition and modernity play out in a society caught in transition between those two poles.

Partly because of that book's success, and partly because the 57-year-old Pamuk became the center of international human rights agitation in 2005 when he was arrested and put on trial for insulting "Turkishness" by speaking openly about the Armenian genocide and massacre of the Kurds, many American readers are likely to bring political expectations to his work. (Turkey has a history of being hard on its writers. In 1951, its great modernist poet Nazim Hikmet was stripped of his citizenship for insulting the government. His citizenship was posthumously restored earlier this year.) Pamuk's novels, however, don't fit neatly into such pigeonholes. "The Museum of Innocence" is essentially a novel of erotic obsession and of love and loves lost, remembered, recovered and, then, lost (again) to all but recollection. It begins thus, with two lovers in bed:

"It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn't know it. Had I known, had I cherished this gift, would everything have turned out differently? Yes, if I had recognized this instant of perfect happiness, I would have held it fast and never let it slip away. It took a few seconds, perhaps, for that luminous state to enfold me, suffusing me with the deepest peace, but it seemed to last hours, even years. In that moment, on the afternoon of Monday, May 26, 1975, at about a quarter to three, just as we felt ourselves to be beyond sin and guilt so too did the world seem to have been released from gravity and time."

Kemal is a 30-year-old businessman, graduate of an American university, making his desultory way through a career in one of his wealthy father's businesses. He lives with his parents in Istanbul's wealthy Nisantasi neighborhood, where Pamuk -- who originally trained as an architect to please his father -- grew up and still resides. Kemal has an active social life with a wide but claustrophobic circle of friends, all children of secularized, wealthy families, the progeny of modern Turkey's founder Kemal Ataturk's forced de-Islamization. Everyone drinks and smokes and looks to Paris for fashion. Pamuk's Kemal, in fact, is set to announce his engagement to Sibel, the French-educated daughter of another wealthy family.

Then, while shopping for a Jenny Colon handbag for his fiancee, he encounters a distant relative, the much younger Fusun. She becomes the object of his erotic obsession and, after he takes her virginity, he attempts to make her his mistress. However, Fusun, who harbors ambitions of cinematic stardom, rejects Kemal and marries an unattractive -- and unsuccessful -- writer of art films.

Unable to shake off his obsession with Fusun, Kemal loses Sibel to a wealthy friend and through the years continues to haunt the apartment where Fusun and her husband live. Gradually, Kemal becomes an object of pity and, then, scorn to friends. Throughout these years, he steals objects associated with Fusun -- cigarette butts, cups and glasses, underwear, bits of jewelry, which he hoards in the apartment where they once met. This collection will become the nucleus of his "Museum of Innocence" after a final, searing tragedy.

Along the way there are marvelous and transporting evocations of Istanbul -- a city of which Pamuk has written movingly before -- and fascinating insights into a society living very much on the unstable borders of contemporary life between the Islamic and Western worlds.

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