The Museum of Innocence- a review


Tragedies are the best love stories- someone had once told me.

I hadn’t understood it then. But the matter became clear to me after reading Orhan Pamuk’s ‘The Museum of Innocence.’

This is a novel on love, on loss, on long lost love waiting to be replenished, on war, on politics, on forgotten things that evoke memories of the past, on Istanbul. On the surface Pamuk tells us the story of a man named Kemal who cheats on his fiancé Sibel with an eighteen year old distant relative Fusun. Kemal Bey and Fusun rendezvous in Kemal’s apartment and he ends up falling madly in love with her. This love is destructive in nature. It results in Sibel finding out about her intended’s affair and eventually breaking up the engagement after she tries to cure the love-struck Kemal, only to fail miserably.

Fusun, who realizes that she cannot possess a man who is promised to another, is married off to a money less film maker- Feridun. When Kemal realizes that his love for Fusun is undying and that it is not another ‘summer fling’, he rushes to Fusun’s house only to meet her husband and family. Day turn to night, and night to day and eight years pass in the blink of an eye. Feridun cheats on his wife leading to a much talked about divorce and finally there is hope for the couple.

But providence has other plans for them. After a blissful night in a hotel room in Paris, the longtime lovers, now engaged, decide to go on a drive. There is an accident and Fusun passes away, leaving Kemal look forward to years of despair and melancholy in the future.

Our narrator, Kemal Bey, has a peculiar habit. He is obsessed with Fusun, to say the least; he is stalkerish at times. His urge to possess Fusun- both emotionally and physically- drives him crazy with lust. He cannot bear to see her with anyone else let alone talking to or standing beside another.  Kemal takes to stealing small things which Fusun touches in the course of their love making sessions. Things like handkerchiefs, earrings, tissues touched by his paramour are coveted by him with such ferocity that he reduces young kids who try to take these objects away from him, to tears.

After Fusun’s marriage, he finds solace in these small things around him. Touching them makes him feel good. He never washes the sheets they made love on, just so that he can be close to the smell. After I read Kemal’s confession of the above mentioned fact, I was grossed out. But as I kept reading, I couldn’t help but root for this forbidden love.

Every fiber of my being wanted to sympathize with Sibel, the unsuspecting fiancée, and curse Kemal for playing with two lives at the same time. But I couldn’t get myself to hate him or dislike him. The voice in the book, is one that is peculiarly unapologetic of its feelings. When Kemal Bey drags on about his despair and nags too much, he acknowledges the fact that he just wants to rant and continue obsessing over his time with Fusun. This degree of naked truth is hard to digest. How many times have we seen people acknowledge their emotions to complete strangers?

Kemal wins my sympathy as the novel progresses. He is a man who cannot help himself. He gave in to temptation and he suffered, lifelong till his dying breath. However, he immortalized this suffering of his when he decided to make a museum consisting of things related to Fusun.

Fusun’s character is an awe inspiring one. She is Istanbul’s Lolita. Although Pamuk has written this novel in Kemal’s voice, I cannot help but detect a note of admiration that Pamuk has for Fusun. She reminds me of the character of Maria Elena of the film ‘Vicky Christina Barcelona’. Fusun is a bohemian at heart. She gives in to desire, not because she is a school girl who has been taken advantage of by an older man, but because she wants the pleasure. Fusun, unlike the majority of the women in Istanbul at that time, chooses to part with her virginity for the sake of lustful pleasure. This type of sexual independence and unabashed confidence in her sexuality gives me goose bumps.

There are times when I want to enter the pages of the book, into the lives of the characters and beg Fusun to not hurt Kemal any more. I want to tell her that this love story will end badly if she doesn’t act at the earliest and embrace Kemal’s love for her.

Fusun annoys with her stubbornness and endears with her soft looks that reflect the sadness of her eyes and the gentleness of her soul.

Then there is Sibel, a very practical lady who (not unlike Kemal’s mother) believes that love should be dignified and controlled. She holds her virginity dear to her and acts in societally appreciated ways. Unlike Fusun, she is level headed and has control on her emotions. I feel sad for her, not just because she is being cheated on, but also because she is missing out on the woes of passion and the sweet despair that comes with loss. My advice to her would be different from my advice to Fusun. I would tell her to let her hair down and to give in to her feelings. Maybe then she would find happiness with Kemal.

Both Kemal and Sibel are what Pamuk calls the Istanbul’s ‘bourgeois’. They are the people who carry branded hand bags, wear designer clothes and are a subject of the gossip columns. Kemal and his mother’s elaborate lunches and dinners where they only discuss the family business and society gossip is very different from Kemal’s meals with Fusun’s family where they all watch the television together and play board games.

The alienation that the bourgeois face among their own community and their own family is evident by Kemal’s relationship with his father. They have a strained relationship which could have got somewhere when his father told Kemal about his affair with a lady much younger than him. I wish he would have let the tears that had come to his eyes, flow. Then, father and son could have shared their dilemmas about love with each other and they would have achieved something concrete from their relationship.

There is a persistent theme of the Istanbul film industry, in the background of the story. Kemal’s relationship with the glitz and glamour of the film industry of Istanbul is a suspicious one. At one point in the story, he calls the directors sex hungry and corrupt. On the other hand are the performers themselves. There is a mention of a German model who enter the limelight after doing an ad film for Zaim, Kemal’s friend. She, like most western women in the novel, is promiscuous and open. On the contrary, Fusun is not allowed to enter the film industry because her family and Kemal, fear that she will end up becoming like those other actresses- wearing bikinis and going around with a different man every day.

This points to another struggle in the story. The Museum of Innocence is a story about Istanbul, at a deeper level. It is about the romance of the city with the west on the one hand, and with the culture of the Ottoman Empire on the other. In Fusun, I saw the west personified with its sexual liberties and stubbornness and in Sibel, I saw the more conservative values of the Ottoman Empire.

Istanbul’s censor board cannot decide what it can allow in movies and what it can’t. Istanbul’s parents cannot decide whether to offer their children up to the system of arranged marriages or whether to allow free love. Like the parents, the kids seeking love cannot decide what they want- the traditional notion of love where everything is fixed for them or the more experimental ‘going with the flow’ kind of love that is bound to leave them with heart burns.

The reference to the old ’56 Chevrolet that belonged to Kemal’s father is an example of how Istanbul (like Kemal) finds letting go of the past difficult. It is a vicious cycle of what to belief, what to keep, and what to let go of, that both the city and Kemal fall into again and again.

However, towards the end of the story, Kemal decides that he wants to keep the things that remind him of the past- of his past with Fusun. He becomes an anthropologist of his own experiences. He invests in a museum where he keeps all of Fusun’s things. Kemal, after Fusun’s death, takes to visiting museums in different cities in the world and getting ideas from those to implement in the museum that he eventually creates.

He wants the Museum of Innocence to be place where lovers who cannot express their love freely meet. He want it to be a safe haven for anyone who wishes to feel the power of undying love. He tells Orhan Pamuk that no one who visits his museum, should ever feel like they don’t belong. He commissions the guards to carry out the task of including people and making them feel welcome.

Now when I close my eyes, I can imagine what this museum looks like. In my mind’s eye, I see the earring that Kemal’s father had given him and that Kemal eventually gave Fusun, sitting on a rack, and I feel a lump rising in my throat. I imagine Fusun’s face all bright and happy when Kemal brings this earing for her.

Museums are a place where I feel a mix of emotions. I remember feeling strangely intimate with the objects on display. If it is a museum on famous personalities, seeing their clothes and cutlery makes me feel close to them. It is as if, they have become human for me, instead of just being an abstract concept that I read about in a history book.

Maybe, if I ever visit the Museum of Innocence, I will feel the same about Fusun, our heroine. Maybe when I see the sheets on which they made love, I will feel inspired by the knowledge that some things last forever, even if it is forbidden and looked down on and in that, I find comfort.


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