A man repeatedly lies to and harasses both his fiancé and his young lover, while pontificating about the “unpalatable anthropological truths” which plague relations between the sexes. In pursuit of his obsession with the young lover, he then displays over 728 pages (in my paperback edition) every one of the unpleasant male characteristics he decries, from jealousy to over-control. In the process he ruins her prospects for either marriage or a career and brings about a tragedy.
Yet, at the end of the novel, the author invites the reader’s sympathy for his protagonist, making his last words in the book: “Let everyone know, I lived a very happy life.”
The author also invites the reader to explore and even share in the obsession of the protagonist, Kemal, by filling a house with objects supposedly collected by Kemal and associated with the object of his obsession, Fusun. This house is the eponymous “Museum of Innocence“, to which I gave a rave 10/10 rating in an earlier review.
The case containing 4,213 cigarette stubs in The Museum of Innocence (Photo: Robert Pimm)
I wrote in my review of the Museum: “The story… 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.”
I also wrote that “Kemal is beyond creepy”. But he may also be interpreted as a prototypical man.
So: do the ghastly actions and self-justifications of Kemal depict a warped misogynistic monster? Or is author Orhan Pamuk simply laying bare with unprecedented honesty how all men really think – and act, if they are given the chance?
A few examples of Kemal’s thoughts and actions follow. NB these contain mild spoilers:
How Kemal fakes his emotions
(i) Kemal notes early on: ‘As I gazed out on the lights of Nisantasi, it would occasionally occur to me that if I was to continue my happy, beautiful life in the manner to which I was accustomed, it was essential that I not be in love with Fusun. For this reason I felt it was important to resist befriending her or taking too great an interest in her problems, her jokes, and her humanity.’
(ii) Kemal records how, in an anguish of tears, Fusun reveals to him that: ‘“I’ve fallen in love with you. I’m head over heels in love with you… I think about you all day long. I think about you from morning until night.”‘ His response? ‘Let me confess that my first instinct was to grin stupidly. But I didn’t. Instead I frowned, assumed a tender expression of concern, until finally I had overcome the force of my own feelings. Here, at one of the deepest, most profound moments of my life, there was something contrived in my demeanour.‘ Later, after making love, Kemal records Fusun looking into his eyes and saying ‘”My whole life depends on you now.“‘ ‘This,’ Kemal writes, ‘both pleased and alarmed me.’
(iii) Kemal even manipulates his own emotions when Fusun’s father dies. In the aftermath of the death, he is delighted to be able to embrace Fusun: ‘Dear God, what great happiness it was to hold her in my arms! I felt the world’s profundity, its unbounded beauty.‘ But aware that Fusun is convulsed with tears, he takes action: ‘I called to mind my own father’s death so that I might better share her grief.‘
How Kemal relishes and exploits his power over women
(iv) at the party to mark his engagement to his fiancé Sibel, Kemal is pleased to find that Fusun, who has a vital exam the next day and with whom he has had sex a few hours earlier, has turned up in an agitated state. As he exchanges pleasantries with Fusun’s mother, his eyes dwell on Fusun’s body. ‘As I turned away I felt happiness overwhelm me like a giant wave crashing.‘ There is much here, as throughout the book, of Kemal exploiting and relishing the power he has over Fusun, whose position in a less well-off family than his own leads her parents to tolerate his interest in her as the least-bad option;
(v) Kemal revels in his actions to prevent Fusun from making contacts which could develop her hoped-for career as an actress, while pretending that he is supporting her ambitions: ‘Sometimes the things we were obliged to do to keep Fusun away from the wolves and jackals besieging her… were less a source of distress than of mirth or even moral uplift.‘
(vi) Kemal compares his theft of items from Fusun’s house to display in his museum with acquiring Fusun herself: ‘…whenever I dropped a matchbox into my pocket, pretending not to notice what I had done, there was another reason to rejoice. I may not have “won” the woman I loved so obsessively, but it cheered me to have broken off a piece of her, however small.‘ Again it is as though the act of stealing items associated with Fusun gives him a pleasurable sense of power over her;
(vii) indeed, Kemal’s jealousy of Fusun has chilling undertones. He obsesses suspiciously about her when she goes sewing with her mother to raise money: ‘… asking myself what my beauty, my one and only, could be doing in those strangers’ houses…’ and is even embarrassed by her actions. When she recalls these people fondly, he looks forward to preventing her from seeing them: ‘I hadn’t the heart to tell her that when we were married and living among the rich, neither of us would enjoy meeting those people whose houses she’d visited as a seamstress.‘
(viii) Kemal’s jealousy about Fusun includes obsessing about whether she has slept with her husband Feridun during the eight years of their marriage: ‘Had I dwelled long and hard on the notion of Fusun and Feridun’s enjoying full marital relations… my love could not have survived. Yet, when, following years of successful self-deception, Fusun had commanded that I had no choice but to believe it, I immediately and unequivocally told myself that it couldn’t be true, and indeed even bristled at the thought that she was tricking me.’ This is the perfect application of Shakespeare’s line from Henry VI: ‘Suspicion always haunts the guilty mind.‘
Kemal continues to lie despite knowing it is wrong
(ix) Pamuk imbues Kemal with a tantalising element of self-awareness. ‘”I’m not indignant,” I said indignantly”‘ Kemal says in chapter 71 (this echoes a line in Remember Me, a novel by Melvyn Bragg about his relationship with his wife: ‘He stood up, hit, hurt, incensed. What she said was true. “That’s not true” he said, he shouted.‘). Kemal knows his actions in sleeping with Fusun and his fiancé Sibel have ruined both, as well as making them unhappy. ‘There were times, I admit, when I longed for the consolation of Sibel’s embrace, but I was so guilt-ridden, so worn down by my evil duplicity, that ultimately her absence was a comfort.‘ Yet he keeps lying, as when Sibel confronts him about his actions in moving with her to a yali (waterfront house) without getting married. His reply to her – ‘”The innocent, sincere companionship I shared with you in the yali – I’ve never known such a thing with anyone else”‘ – is both a lie and a betrayal of Fusun;
(x) meanwhile, Kemal’s lying to Fusun is consistent and comprehensive. Early on, she asks whether he has slept with Sibel. ‘”I don’t want you to tell me any lies. I can’t believe you aren’t having sex with her these days. Swear to me, please.“‘ ‘”I swear I’m not making love to her“‘ he lies. Sensitively, Fusun gives him a way out: ‘”Did you tell any lies just now?” “No.” “Why don’t you think it over for a while.“‘ Later she asks: ‘”Have you thought it over?” “Yes, I’ve thought it over. I didn’t tell you any lies.” “Just now, or in the recent past?” “Never… We’re at a stage when there is no need to lie to each other.”‘ Days later, she sets a condition for staying with him: ‘”Swear on your father’s head that you’ll never ever lie to me.” “I swear.” “Not like that. Say the whole sentence.” “I swear on my father’s head that I’ll never ever lie to you.“‘ Needless to say, he is lying. Much later, she confronts him when he says she can still be a film star. ‘”Kemal, that’s a lie you’ve just told me. You don’t even believe it yourself… That really makes me angry – how good you are at telling lies.” “What makes you say that?“‘ he replies. Later she says: ‘”Because of you, I haven’t had the chance to live my own life, Kemal… I wanted to become an actress.“‘
Kemal rarely makes any attempt to communicate honestly with Fusun
(xi) in the famous chapter 4,213 Cigarette Stubs, Kemal analyses the moods Fusun displays in the way she stubs out each of her cigarettes over many years: ‘the collected resentment of her whole life was being expressed with this cigarette stub.‘ Or: ‘All [three stubs] are roughly bent, folded upon themselves, and compacted, perfectly recalling the terrible awkwardness of Fusun’s silence that day, her refusal to say what was upsetting her, and her vain attempts to pretend nothing was wrong.’ You can’t wishing Kemal would help Fusun by talking to her about what is distressing her (although the fact you care does show you have bought into the characters). All 4,213 stubs are, of course, in display case 68 at the Museum of Innocence – see picture above;
Kemal never displays loyalty to, or respect towards, Fusun but thinks always of himself
(xii) even after a tragedy has occurred, Kemal betrays the memory of Fusun: ‘I laughed and joked… making sure everyone noticed my high spirits, thus leaving the gossips to conclude that “in the end” I had “saved” myself from “that girl”.‘ Near the end of the novel he muses: ‘I thought about how I might describe what Fusun meant to me to someone who knew nothing about Istanbul… I was coming to see myself as someone who had travelled to distant countries… say, an anthropologist who had fallen in love with a native girl while living among the indigenous folk of New Zealand, to study and catalog their habits and rituals….”
So how aware is Pamuk of the ghastliness of his protagonist Kemal? Does the invitation to the reader at the close of the book, to feel sympathy for Kemal, mean that perhaps he hasn’t noticed that he has created a monster?
I think the answer must be ‘no’: Pamuk is well aware that he is depicting someone pretty vile. Yet he is also inviting us all to consider whether the characteristics he depicts are in all of us, men as well, I suspect, as women – although the female characters in the book are mere shadows compared with their male counterparts. He may also, perhaps, be asking us to forgive Kemal despite his vileness. Pamuk hints at this and at the idea that he himself is Kemal when, in the closing pages of the book, he toys with his narrative first person in a conversation between the narrator, Kemal, and Orhan Pamuk himself after the latter appears in the story to discuss the book he is writing:
Pamuk: ‘“I am writing the novel in the first person singular,” said Orhan Bey.
Kemal: “What do you mean?’
Pamuk: “In the book you are telling your own story, and saying ‘I,’ Kemal Bey. I am speaking in your voice. Right now I am trying very hard to put myself in your place, to be you.”
Kemal: “I understand,” I said. “So tell me, have you ever been in love this way, Orhan Bey?”
Pamuk: “Hmmmm… we aren’t talking about me,” he said, and fell silent.’
If we give Pamuk the benefit of the doubt and assume that he knows exactly what he is doing, this makes the book of The Museum of Innocence a magisterial and scary analysis of how men think; as well as a fascinating look at the well-heeled Istanbul of the ’70s and ’80s. For my taste it’s rather long, and not exactly compulsive reading, but is still one of the easier reads (along with the openly autobiographical Istanbul) amongst Pamuk’s books.
For: disturbing, eerie analysis of men and Istanbul, in that order.
Against: a bit long. Kemal will upset a lot of people. The book is not as good as the concept of the Museum of Innocence (i.e. combining a book and a museum – see my earlier review) or the Museum itself.
P.S. as noted before, you don’t have to read the novel (“The Museum of Innocence”) to enjoy, or understand, the Museum in Istanbul.