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Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Books - The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

Star rating – 9/10

This was my first experience of Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk’s work, ventured into after reading glowing reviews in the weekend broadsheets. And what an enthralling and utterly enchanting experience it was. It is the story of rich Turkish playboy Kemal, and his accidental and ultimately all consuming love for his distant cousin Fusun. It is also a fabulously rich description of Istanbul from 1975, and the world that Kemal inhabits, which springs to life from the pages of this book.

He is 30 years old and on an established and respectable course to marriage with an equally well off and respectable woman, Sibel, whom his family and friends totally approve of and expect him to settle down with. But on route to buy Sibel a present, he comes across his beautiful young distant cousin Fusun, and their three lives are never the same. The way that Pamuk, and indirectly his brilliant translator Maureen Freely, lets this tale unfold is so loving and rich and romantic, that it is somewhat surprising coming from a male writer.

Kemal is unusually expressive, and given to living by his heart rather than his head, and what a big heart he has. At first he seems to be wending the familiar path of having his cake and eating it, as he refuses to think that he needs to change anything about his relationship with his girlfriend, soon to be fiancé, Sibel, whilst falling head over heels in love in an all consuming fashion with Fusun.

In hindsight, Kemal, as the narrator of the story, admits that ‘no one recognizes the happiest moment of their lives as they are living it.’ And as he and Fusun spend many an idyllic, erotically charged hour in his family’s spare and unused apartment, he is not aware of how much she really means to him. But Pamuk does not let us simply despise Kemal as a selfish man who wants a beautiful mistress and a respectable wife too. We soon are drawn into Kemal’s world, with all his weakness and failings on show for all to see.

The class difference between Fusun and Kemal is an obvious barrier that he does not want to confront. The position of women in the Turkish society of the day is highlighted in fascinating detail as Kemal strips both Fusun and Sibel of their virginity without marrying either – a very serious breach of the accepted societal norms of his culture and time. The limitations put upon women and what they are and are not allowed to do is one of the themes at the heart of the novel.

Without giving away the plot, suffice it to say that the course of Kemal’s love for Fusun does not run smoothly. He descends into an obsession with her, and all things and people related to her, that results in a mania for collecting objects that draw him ever closer to her – eventually to make up the museum of the book’s title. In the ends he is paralysed by his feelings for her – unable to realise them in full, and unable to move on with his life.

Pamuk has written a beautiful and gripping story. It is so full of minute and engrossing details that it is hard to describe or explain how lovingly and engagingly he lures the reader in. As he himself says at one point, the ‘purpose of a novel … is to relate our memories with such sincerity as to transform individual happiness into happiness that all can share.’ At times it is more like unhappiness that Pamuk is sharing in this book, but he definitely had this reader hooked, and hungry to read much more from him.

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