Orhan Pamuk has come full circle.
He was born in 1952 to a wealthy but declining Istanbul family. After rising to prominence with his early works and receiving the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for My Name Is Red in 2003, Pamuk was pilloried and put on trial in Turkey two years later. He had told a Swiss newspaper, referring to events during the First World War, that “a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in this country and I’m the only one who dares to talk about it.”
In 2006, after decamping for New York, he received the Nobel Prize for literature. Now Pamuk is once again living in the city of his birth, and the city has embraced him. A road sign at a crosswalk, installed by the municipal government, points proudly to his newly opened Museum of Innocence. The museum is not so much a homage to his eponymous book of 2008 as an aspect of it.
From the moment he conceived of the project, in the 1990s, he imagined the novel and the museum as two representations of a single story. Museum-goers can gain entry by exchanging the ticket printed in the book for one giving them admission to the collection the author has amassed inside. The idea is ingenious. It was also expensive, consuming years to come to fruition – as well as Pamuk’s $1.5-million in Nobel money.
Pamuk’s rehabilitation and his gift for self-promotion are still a touchy subject in Turkey. There is something vulgar about building a museum, in effect, to oneself – one could hardly imagine Tolstoy working industriously on the Mausoleum of Anna Karenina, even if a museum devoted to evoking the relics of St. Petersburg society of the epoch would be splendid. There are of course many museums devoted to celebrated writers – one may view, for example, Dickens’s manuscripts, letters and other memorabilia at the Dickens Museum in London; the Maison de Victor Hugo in Paris became a museum in 1903. Alexander Pope had the vision to transform his grotto in Twickenham into a museum while he was still alive – but it was a museum of mineralogy and mining.
Is Pamuk’s museum an act of vanity, then? No, not at all. It is a genuinely interesting work of art.
The novel is one of his great accomplishments, and the idea of representing the story in two forms is ingenious. Of course, the idea can only work if one writes a novel about a museum. The novel is about more than this, though: It is about love, and it is about Istanbul, and it is about the power of artifacts to evoke nostalgia. It is a long – perhaps excessively long – account of Kemal, an idle Istanbul playboy, and his florid obsession with Füsun, a lower-class shop girl 12 years his junior. Unable to possess her beyond the initial heady days of their affair, he spends years contriving simply to be in her presence, whereupon he pilfers and collects artifacts connected with her. He consoles himself by touching the things she has touched, ultimately transforming Füsun into a fully developed museum of objects consecrated to his obsession with her.
Although the story takes place largely in Pamuk’s childhood neighbourhood of Nişantaşı, the museum is in Çukurcuma, the neighbourhood – in the novel – where he discovers Füsun living in “a dreadful house ... a rat’s nest with its mud and its floods.” Here something did not go according to plan: Pamuk purchased the building 15 years ago, when Çukurcuma was sufficiently dilapidated to suggest the distinction in social class between Kemal and Füsun that he evokes in the novel. Çukurcuma is now so gentrified that the threads mixing memory and desire have been frayed, and the museum is out of place.
To enter the museum itself is to feel that past evoked, and it is to feel the book – and indeed an entire era and culture – evoked. It is a bit like reading the script for a play and then seeing its performance. The museum is as carefully crafted as the book, presenting in meticulous display cases and boxes the items used and collected and discussed by the novel’s characters, and managing somehow to make them compelling rather than disgusting – not an easy trick when one of the exhibits comprises 4,213 cigarette butts, each supposedly smoked by Füsun. It is the minute attention to detail that spares this display from grotesquerie – the butts have been pinned to the wall like a lepidopterist’s prized treasures; there is something fascinating about the author’s handwritten notes, beneath each butt, and the lipstick stains – each the same shade – or the lack of lipstick, and the way some cigarettes are half-smoked, others stubbed to the core in a suggestion of rage.
The love and memory on display here are not merely that of Kemal for the vanished Füsun, but Pamuk’s for the vanished Istanbul of his youth, the “irreplaceable mementos of a lost world whose every detail figured in the meaning of the whole.” Istanbullus of a certain age roamed the museum with expressions of tender recognition – “ Oh yes, we remember that” – the brand names, the film stars, the high-society gossip columns, the photographs of women from newspapers of the epoch with black bands branded across their eyes. (Such was the fate of women who had sex before marriage.)
Yes, this is in one sense a vanished world, but in another sense there is a direct connection to the Istanbul of today, at least to the one I know, where the upper-class, secular world imagines itself free and modern, but is in many important aspects patriarchal and authoritarian. Sons, as Pamuk has written of his own family, still lack “the courage to make the final break,” and as Kemal’s mother warns him, “In a country where men and women can’t be together socially, where they can’t see each other or have a conversation, there’s no such thing as love.… Don’t deceive yourself.”
The museum’s aim, Pamuk says, is to suggest that there is no special reason an ordinary life and its ordinary objects ought not be viewed with the curiosity and reverence we bring to museums. “If objects that bring us shame are displayed in a museum,” he observes, “they are immediately transformed into possessions in which to take pride.” I would have scoffed had I not been so entranced by the cigarette butts. Of course, this is only true if the ordinary life and its ordinary objects are evoked and curated by someone with the ability to make artistic meaning out of them; were it not, every dullard’s apartment would be a museum. That this is not so suggests this is a unique experiment, unlikely to be repeated.
Claire Berlinski is a freelance journalist who lives in Istanbul.
Special to The Globe and Mail