A man buys a house in Istanbul in order to turn it into a museum, filled with objects collected by an imaginary character in a novel which the man plans to write later.
That man is Orhan Pamuk, Turkish Nobel prize-winning author, about whose awesome productivity I’ve written before.
The museum, and the book, are called The Museum of Innocence.
A display case in The Museum of Innocence (Photo: Robert Pimm)
I hesitate to review The Museum of Innocence. Others have done a brilliant job already. For example I recommend this superb 2012 piece by Elif Batuman in the always-crushingly-intellectual London Review of Books.
But I felt it might be worth alerting people to two aspects of The Museum of Innocence.
The first is the extraordinary Museum. Read on.
The second is the novel. I’ll blog about that later.
‘Extraordinary?’ I hear you say, stroking your chin. ‘I thought you were sparing with your praise?’
Yes extraordinary. Because Pamuk has reimagined fiction, reality and the boundaries between the two. Then, he has crystallised that synthesis into a book and a hybrid-art-work – the “Museum” in Istanbul.
The story of The Museum of Innocence is told in the first person by Kemal, a spoiled, wealthy 30-something year-old from Istanbul. Kemal narrates the story of his obsession with Fusun, a younger woman, over a period of nine years. During that time, Kemal discovers that one way to salve the ache of loss when Fusun is not present is to handle objects associated with her. So he begins to steal items from her family. These objects form the nucleus of the museum.
Sound creepy? Kemal is beyond creepy; but we’ll come back to that in my review of the novel.
Here are four things that make the Museum remarkable:
(i) the idea that the Museum houses objects collected by a fictional character is brilliant. Throughout the novel, Kemal refers to items in the Museum (“Press down on the button alongside this exhibit to hear the sound of a chirping bird“). The novel refers to the “distraction and consolation drawn from things“. But Kemal does not exist. Or does he? The objects exist, in the Museum. On the top floor is a bedroom, where Kemal narrated the story of his obsession, on his death-bed, to Orhan Pamuk. Pamuk himself appears in chapter 24: “the chain-smoking twenty-three-year-old Orhan, nothing special about him beyond his propensity to act nervous and impatient, affecting a mocking smile”;
(ii) the Museum is beautiful. The 83 display cases, each corresponding to a chapter in the book, are works of art. Some, like the famous Box 68, 4213 cigarette stubs, which contains the stubs of cigarettes smoked by Fusun and stolen by Kemal between 1976 and 1984, have been commissioned from artists (think Andreas Gursky crossed with Damien Hurst with massive intellectual underpinning). Others contain created objects: a map of the forbidden zones of the city where Kemal may not go in case he is reminded of Fusun; or a mock-up of an analgesic ad showing where in the body the pains of love may strike. Others contain objects from the time in which the novel is set – an advert for the “Meltem” soft drinks which features in the book; cinema tickets; clothing; an earring; and thousands of other items. Brilliantly (or perhaps pragmatically) some display cases are empty or half-completed, creating a reason to return for another look;
(iii) the Museum operates on numerous levels. Quite apart from its literary substructure, the Museum paints a picture of life in Istanbul in the 1950s-80s with an intimate, almost voyeuristic intensity. The display cases make you long to linger. So does the excellent audio-guide, which binds the book to what you are seeing. I spent two hours perusing half the cases. Next time I’ll go for longer;
(iv) no-one else has done anything like this anywhere in the world. Correct me if I’m wrong.
Taken together, the Museum is a slow-burning, deeply textured revelation. If you live in or are visiting Istanbul, go. If you’re planning a visit to that extraordinary city, schedule in The Museum of Innocence. You won’t regret it.
For: breathtakingly different; stimulating; fun. 10 out of 10.
Against: hard to get your head around. The title of the Museum is a bit off-putting.
P.S. you don’t have to read the novel (“The Museum of Innocence”) to enjoy, or understand, the Museum in Istanbul. In fact, I’m not even sure it’s desirable.