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Love as a relic, frozen in amber

By Marie Arana
Tuesday, October 20, 2009

THE MUSEUM OF INNOCENCE

By Orhan Pamuk

Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely

Knopf. 535 pp. $28.95

One of the trickier subjects in fiction is that of the hapless suitor, besotted with love, locked in a lifelong obsession with a woman he can neither leave nor have. Yet, for all the perils of that soupy scenario, great literature has come of it. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote memorably of just such a man in "The Great Gatsby"; William Styron, in "Sophie's Choice"; Gabriel García Márquez, in "Love in the Time of Cholera"; and Mario Vargas Llosa, in "The Bad Girl."

Now, adding to those triumphant chronicles of the lovelorn, comes Orhan Pamuk's mesmeric new novel, "The Museum of Innocence." In it, the Nobel Prize winner proves his own dictum that a lover's best hope, like a writer's, is patience, or, even, stubbornness. In loving, as in writing, you dig a well with a needle. You're in for a long haul.

As familiar as the subject of love might seem, "The Museum of Innocence" is a startling original. Every turn in the story seems fresh, disquieting, utterly unexpected. Like the old Turkish legend of love-struck Ferhat, who literally tunnels through rock to reach the object of his affection, Pamuk's hero, Kemal, finds no obstacle too daunting in the single-minded pursuit of Füsun.

Those obstacles can be formidable: First, Kemal, an urbane bachelor of 30, already has a fiancée, Sibel, an Istanbul woman of his own class. She is sophisticated, beautiful, and, by his own agency, no longer a virgin (which in Turkey means that, if he doesn't make her his wife, no other man ever will). Second, the sudden angel of his dreams, Füsun, is a schoolgirl from a poor neighborhood -- a distant relative -- barely 18. Third, and perhaps most vexing of all, their story begins backward: bedding Füsun is surprisingly easy. It's winning her heart that proves devilishly hard.

So, as strange as it may seem, the novel opens with Kemal and Füsun in bed together: "It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn't know it," Kemal recounts. "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." Sadly, as Kemal later ruminates, we never recognize life's happiest moment when we are in it. We always believe that there's a brighter one on the horizon; that the "golden instant" of our now is but prelude. For the rest of his life, Kemal will labor mightily to recapture the bliss he wins so easily on the first page. The genius of Pamuk's novel is that although it can be read as a simple romance, it is a richly complicated work with subtle and intricate layers. Kemal's descent into love's hell takes him through every level of the social order, past countless neighborhoods of sprawling Istanbul, in a story that spans 30 years.

At first, he believes he can have it all: a rich fiancée and an earthy shop-girl; his father's enormously successful business as well as long, self-indulgent afternoons. The scene of his engagement party at the Hilton turns out to be as glittering as any in Manhattan, replete with black market whiskey and all the Western trimmings, from miniskirts to revolving doors. All Istanbul society is there. He goes through the motions with Sibel, making his parents happy, but it is clear that this nuptial revelry is headed for disaster: He cannot live without Füsun.

It's impossible to tell more of the plot without giving away the story. Suffice it to say that as Kemal struggles to win and rewin his true love, bewildering things happen. But he finds strength to carry on.

Along the way, we learn a great deal about Turkey: its advertising business, its film industry, its brothels, the Turks who are driven to prosper and the Turks who are driven to drink. And as Kemal becomes more and more obsessed, even ill, in his irrational pursuit of happiness, we cannot help but see that he is utterly blind to the dire politics of his time. Is it lovesickness or innocence or just plain apathy that so distracts him from the bombs, the riots, the crackdowns, the unfortunate ranks among his schoolmates who are being dragged away to jail?

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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