Monday, 2 July 2012

Orhan Pamuk's The museum of innocence

This book was a challenge to us --  the realm of the book is large and the details provided are minute. This passionate love story is set in Pamuk's beloved Istanbul and the city's history and streets are described in some detail and it is really more than just background in the novel. The way people from different social classes interacted and lived was also important and impacted upon the story. Maybe it was a story of 3 loves? (Kemal and Fusan and Istanbul?)

The general feeling was that the book was enthralling on a certain level but needed a good edit. However it did engage with us. Those of us who hadn't finished the 700 pages probably will not bother to finish however now we know the denouement and the details to be overcome. One reader was adamant that the sentence that summed up her feeling about the book was : 'it was like being caught in a suffocating dream...' (page 576 in the Faber edition). He was actually describing his feeling of watching Hitchcock's 'Rear Window' on television with the Keskin family.     

We couldn't believe that the author was so obsessed himself to create an actual museum in Istanbul -- not just virtual but a reality -- how weird and obsessed! Was the reality which opened in April 2012 a way of capturing the Turkey of Pamuk's youth? 

The characters were not generally liked -- we thought Kemal was a spoilt wimp and even glib and superficial (and even a bastard) and Fusan wasn't really fleshed out sufficiently. Why did she suddenly assert herself after 8 long years of being the housewife?  We felt we didn't see enough of her side of the story. The character most admired was Sibel as she was the mature woman even though her life was badly affected by Kemal. We were pleased that she ended up well.           

The engagement party was a pivotal moment in the story. Up to that point the pace was good, after that we felt that the story slowed down and became more introspective just like Kemal himself. 

Despite the difficulties with this book we did agree that it was beautifully written and was a real page turner. His writing is very heavily influenced by European writers such as Proust and Flaubert among others. Also Nabakov's Lolita was mentioned as a parallel? And maybe the nostalgia and melancholy felt by Kemal and Pamuk were directly linked to these writers and their take on the world?  

What was it really about ? Was it just obsession or was there more?  Was it highlighting the changes being made in Turkey in the last quarter of the 20th century from a relatively poor country to one trying to become more Westernised and improve the economy for all of its population? Was it tracking the mood of melancholy as it lost some of the old ways and its acceptance of all things European? This was evidenced by one of the few mildly amusing features when Kemal is talking about the housewives buying the latest gadgets for their kitchens but not knowing how to use them properly. Or the little china dogs etc which were made and sold universally. Also the love of Paris in particular for all the rich girls.

 We also commented on the secular state established after the First World War and the admiration in the West for these changes. Pamuk artfully conveyed the feeling of the ordinary people (as shown by Fusan's Mum and Dad) that Turkey is neither West nor East but a mixture and will always be at the crossroads. The amount of traffic increased on the Bosphorus from the cold war days when 'Soviet ships passed through the Bosphorus at night and the American submarines plied the Marmara'. (pg 547) to big oil tankers etc in the latter part of the story, no detail is neglected.   The rise of the Turkish cinema was another interesting side issue. The sitting around the television endlessly reminded us of old fashioned English TV shows such as Til death us do part.      

It is an extremely complex book and we would probably benefit from a reread but there is no way any of us are going to bother! It was fascinating to see that Turkish readers generally gave him excellent reviews but Westerners were less keen. The original could be better than the translation? It does happen. 
 We suggest that we draw a line under Pamuk for quite a few years -- we have had enough!