Orhan Pamuk's "Museum of Innocence"

Dilemma of the Heart and Head

Like most of his stories, Orhan Pamuk's new novel is set in his beloved hometown of Istanbul. And as ever, his heroes are torn between tradition and modernity. Gisa Funck read the book

Orhan Pamuk (photo: AP)
"Museums are places where time transforms into space," says the Turkish writer and Nobel prize-winner Orhan Pamuk

​​At first, the future of the wealthy Istanbul factory-owner's son Kemal Basmaci in Orhan Pamuk's latest novel seems fairly predictable.

Kemal is thirty years old, studied in the USA and runs his father's textiles company, his designated successor. In his private life, he is all set to get engaged to Sibel, the daughter of a diplomat from the western-oriented upper echelons of 1970s Istanbul society, like himself.

In short, all roads seem to lead to a career in high society for the young protagonist. That is, until he unexpectedly comes across the 18-year-old sales girl Füsun one lunchtime. A chance meeting that becomes a fateful turning point for Kemal.

Moral or private happiness?

Rather like Flaubert's Emma Bovary or Tolstoy's Anna Karenina before him, Pamuk's first-person narrator is seized by a passion that intensifies into obsession.

Istanbul (photo: AP)
Pamuk's new novel "The Museum of Innocence" is set in 1970s Istanbul

​​Kemal starts an affair with Füsun, although he is actually determined to marry Sibel. A classic dilemma between the heart and the mind, which Flaubert and Tolstoy also used to symbolise a general conflict in society – the conflict between traditional morals and the individual pursuit of happiness.

Despite first appearances as a thoroughly Americanised lover of freedom, Pamuk's hero feels equally obliged to the old Turkish patriarchal code of honour.

Kemal really does get engaged to Sibel as a result, which shocks Füsun so much that she disappears without a trace after the celebration. Not until a year later does the despairing Kemal find his lost lover – now married to another man.

Oriental male pride

Pamuk focuses his satirical eye on the hypocritical sexual morals of Turkish high society, where the apparently relaxed western attitude is a mere pretence. In truth, the strict Oriental rule still applies that women must marry as virgins.

Having grown up with this Islamic cult of innocence, Kemal finds a different solution to his love pangs than his tragic predecessors in European literature. Instead of committing suicide, he makes his own private religion of his unfulfilled love – with his lost lover as its saint.

​​For eight long years, Kemal makes nightly pilgrimages to Füsun's house to idolise her as she eats her evening meal. Every object Füsun touches in this time becomes a holy relic for Kemal, collected in a specially founded "Museum of Innocence": from handkerchiefs to cigarette butts.

It would be all too easy to read Orhan Pamuk's new novel as a song of praise on love for love's sake. Yet like all fanatics, Kemal too is a dubious and manipulative character, ultimately playing a decisive role in the unhappy fate of Füsun, who eventually dies in an accident.

And his tale thus reads like the radical testimony of a man who – perhaps representative of many modern Turks – appears mentally torn between the western cult of freedom and individuality, and Oriental male pride.

Gisa Funck

© Deutsche Welle / Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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