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Book World: Marie Arana reviews 'The Museum of Innocence,' by Orhan Pamuk

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Eventually, one obsession leads to another and Kemal begins to swipe and hoard knickknacks that have any slightest relation to Füsun: mementos from her house, objects she merely touched in passing, keepsakes from outings they made together, cigarette butts from stolen afternoons. With frightening prescience, he sees very clearly where this will lead: "I sensed this room mysterious with old objects and the joy of our kisses would be at the core of my imagination for the rest of my life." And so it is. By the end of his bizarre journey, he will chase down the past, even overtake it; and he will transform his love for Füsun into a museum of relics, keeping the rapture alive.

All Istanbul, too, is alive in this wonderful novel. From the mists that rise from the dark waters of the Bosporus to the creaky old houses on its shores, from self-satisfied merchants in luxury apartments to out-of-work artists in shabby bars, from the brisk cologne offered by the city's bus drivers to the stench of life's waste in the bay, the city fairly breathes on these pages and, in one way or another, so do its eccentric inhabitants. Even Pamuk himself makes an appearance: first as young Orhan, a gawky writer in the '70s, then as the Orhan of these 2000s, the famous author of "Snow."

There is a magical sense of the Ouroboros in all of this, as the novel begins to swallow its own tail. The Orhan Pamuk who lives inside this novel is eventually persuaded to tell Kemal's story. That involution gets even more interesting when you know that there was once a writer named Orhan Kemal, and that, at the very start of Pamuk's career, Pamuk was conferred a prize bearing his name. Orhan Kemal was also a collector; his flat, too, a quirky museum. There are myriad such Turkish delights for those familiar with the country.

For all of its many layers, however, this is a book wholly centered on love and our desperate need to make sense of it. Like Kemal's instinct to pilfer Füsun's trifles, the human impulse is to grasp at love, as if it could be a concrete thing held by fingers. As Nietzsche once said, "There's always a drop of madness in any love, but there's also a drop of reason in any madness." Kemal's love drives him to acts of momentary irrationality, but it's on that tiny plunder that his very sanity depends.

In sum, "The Museum of Innocence" is a deeply human and humane story. Masterfully translated, spellbindingly told, it is resounding confirmation that Orhan Pamuk is one of the great novelists of his generation. With this book, he literally puts love into our hands.

Marie Arana, a former editor of Book World, is a writer at large for The Washington Post. Her most recent novel is "Lima Nights."


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