November 2009

Obsessive love in Pamuk’s Istanbul

By Orhan Pamuk
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Modern Turkey is a place full of contradictions—straddling Europe and Asia, caught between Western culture and the strictures of traditional Islam and riddled with political upheaval and violence. No contemporary writer has brought this complex world to life for Western readers like Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk.

In his intensely psychological new novel, The Museum of Innocence, we view Istanbul in the tumultuous 1970s and ’80s through the lens of a doomed love affair. Kemal is happily engaged to a beautiful, intelligent woman of his own social class, Sibel—and yet, he falls deeply, irrevocably in love with a poor, distant relation, Füsun. When Kemal refuses to leave Sibel, Füsun disappears. Inconsolable, he returns almost daily to the scene of their lovemaking, cradling the objects she once touched as though they still contain some trace of her. He descends deeper into despair, alienating everyone around him except Sibel, now bound to him as much by love as by the shame that she will face should they break off their engagement. But Kemal cannot forget Füsun, and will dedicate his life to possessing her—or at least, the objects that remind him of her—even to the point of destroying himself, and those he loves most.

Though Pamuk’s narrator is intensely single-minded—thinking only of Füsun, rarely taking note of politics in spite of the daily violence on the streets of Istanbul—this novel evokes its time and place vividly. As the upper crust of Istanbul vacillates between “modern” attitudes toward sex and the vicious, self-imposed rumor mill that reinforces traditional values, Pamuk’s characters are left to navigate intricate social rules and customs—some that limit their freedom, and others that, to our surprise (and to Pamuk’s credit), allow for their happiness.

The most remarkable thing about this beautiful novel is that Pamuk manages to convey all of this while telling his story through the eyes of a narrator who, like Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, is so absorbed with his obsession that he seems barely to notice the world around him. But just as Lolita emerges as a kind of portrait of America, as Humbert and his Lo encounter it one motel at a time, so The Museum of Innocence stands not only as a story about a man and the woman he loves, but also about a man and his city—its people, restaurants, music, ever-changing traditions and the majestic waterway dividing East from West that runs through its center. 

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