The Museum of Innocence

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

The Museum of Innocence is seemingly the most conventional of Orhan Pamuk’s eight novels. His earlier fiction, for which he was awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, has been described as philosophical, postmodern, and dense. While The Museum of Innocence may be less demanding, it is nonetheless a philosophical consideration of the nature of love and obsession; a moving, often oddly amusing lament for opportunities lost; a celebration of the power of memory; and a detailed examination of the upper-middle-class culture of late twentieth century Istanbul.

The Museum of Innocence focuses on the relationship between Kemal Basmaci, thirty-year-old scion of a wealthy Istanbul family, and Füsun, an eighteen-year-old distant relative he meets again in 1975 in the shop where she works. Kemal is shopping for a gift for his fiancé, Sibel, and Füsun sells him an expensive designer handbag. When Sibel objects that the bag is counterfeit, Kemal returns it and begins a forty-four-day affair with Füsun. The handbag becomes one of the most significant of hundreds of objects that Kemal accumulates over the years to remind him of Füsun. It is designed by Jenny Colon, who shares a name with the opera singer the French poet Gérard de Nerval continued to worship after her death. The issue of separating the real and the fake is central to The Museum of Innocence and to Pamuk’s method. When initially confronted with his feelings for Füsun and Sibel, Kemal cannot decide which emotions are most genuine. A series of related blunders leads to his failure to live the life he should.

Like many men of his class, Kemal assumes Füsun will continue as his mistress once he marries Sibel, but she has too much pride. After Füsun attends the elaborate engagement party for Sibel and Kemal, she disappears from his life. Distraught, he is unable to go ahead with his marriage and creates a scandal. The snobbish, sometimes cruel Istanbul society acts as a chorus throughout The Museum of Innocence. By making love to both Füsun and Sibel, he has compromised them in that society’s eyes.

After months of searching, Kemal is shocked to discover Füsun has married Feridun, a chubby screenwriter. The couple lives with Füsun’s parents, Nesibe and Tarik, in a neighborhood where writers, actors, and directors flock to bars and clubs each night to discuss their projects and the state of Turkish cinema. Because Feridun hopes to make an art film starring his wife, Kemal agrees to be its producer as an excuse to see Füsun. He begins going out with the couple and spends several nights each week in their home, dining and watching television with Füsun’s family. Matters finally appear headed toward some resolution when Feridun begins an affair with Papatya, an actress.

Kemal is always analyzing himself: “Sorrow was slowly consuming me, though at the time I couldn’t see it clearly, recognizing it only now.” The Museum of Innocence is much less the story of what happens to the ill-fated Füsun than it is Kemal’s self-pitying account of how she affected him. Turkey is embroiled in civil wars during most of Kemal’s time with Füsun, yet he is so self-absorbed that he either ignores the coups, bombings, and curfews or sees them as mere irritants, created simply to disrupt his routine: “Like most people in Istanbul, I had no interest in politics.” While one uprising is raging, he reports, “it would suddenly seem to me that nothing was happening in the world.”

Pamuk’s representation of Kemal is in the tradition of the indecisive, ambiguous protagonists of Henry James. An observation, circling back upon itself, such as “If I’d been able to understand something Füsun had meant to say with her look, in time I would come to see that the thing the look meant to express was the look itself,” could have been written by James himself. Kemal exaggerates his predicament, never realizing how ridiculous he can seem at times. The Museum of Innocence has many subtly comic touches, as Kemal himself observes, “a novel need not be full of suffering just because its heroes are suffering.” When confessing his affair to Sibel, he adds “colors to my story, so as to lighten the tone of my rather ordinary crime.” More obvious irony occurs when Tarik sings “Why Did I Ever Love That Cruel Woman.”

There is also humor in Kemal’s account of how he steals numerous objects from Füsun and his awareness that she and her parents know about and tolerate the thefts. Kemal steals to create the museum of the novel’s title, both as a testimony to Füsun and as a way of preserving the memory of his love for her through...

(The entire section is 1928 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Booklist 106, no. 2 (September 15, 2009): 5.

The Economist 393, no. 8658 (November 21, 2009): 87.

Kirkus Reviews 77, no. 21 (November 1, 2009): 1135-1136.

Library Journal 134, no. 17 (October 15, 2009): 71.

New Statesman 139, no. 4982 (January 11, 2010): 55-56.

The New York Review of Books 56, no. 18 (November 19, 2009): 38-40.

The New York Times Book Review, November 1, 2009, p. 15.

Publishers Weekly 256, no. 37 (September 14, 2009): 29.

The Times Literary Supplement, January 8, 2010, p. 19-20.