Orhan Pamuk favors short chapters that lead the reader from one entry to the next, turning back to correct or amend. He is directorial in “The Museum of Innocence,” his enchanting new novel of first love painfully sustained over a lifetime. In 83 chapters, a privileged Istanbul resident named Kemal tells of his obsession with Fusun, a beautiful shopgirl. The story of this ill-fated passion is preceded by a map of the city. Pamuk’s earlier readers may recall the broad sweep of the Bosporus, the mosques and market streets, the Pamuk Apartments in Nisantasi, from his historical and autobiographical book of wonders, “Istanbul: Memories and the City.” Kemal renders all views — the abandoned apartment of his transporting sexual encounters with Fusun, the years of twisting his life out of shape to honor his enduring passion. He writes from Istanbul, not America where he studied, not Paris where upper-crust Turks were acquiring their gloss of “free and modern.”
THE MUSEUM OF INNOCENCEBy Orhan Pamuk
Translated by Maureen Freely536 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $28.95
At that time Pamuk’s fledgling curator was to marry the lovely Sibel, a fashionable young woman with enlightened views, so enlightened she had gone the limit with Kemal. Virginity becomes a leitmotif — who will, who will not break the code of no sex before marriage, honored in Turkey back then. Kemal’s engaging memories largely scorn his social circle, though he notes that “two members of this large crowd took to politics in a serious way; one would be tortured by the police in the aftermath of the 1971 coup, and remain in prison until the 1974 amnesty; and it is likely that both of them dismissed the rest of us as ‘irresponsible, spoiled and bourgeois.’ ” Preparation for the engagement party looms for many chapters while Kemal’s enchantment with the beautiful Fusun blossoms. The shopgirl is 18 years old. Kemal is 30, and makes what he will of their passion — the novel we are reading. He begins to collect mementos of the affair: a hair clip, a cup Fusun touched, an earring. Much later, during their long (and explicitly unphysical) reconnection, he stows away Fusun’s cigarette stubs, a saltshaker from her dinner table, a quince grater from her kitchen. “Anyone remotely interested in the politics of civilization,” Kemal declares early on, in a mock scholarly discourse on collecting, “will be aware that museums are the repositories of those things from which Western civilization derives its wealth of knowledge, allowing it to rule the world, and likewise when the true collector, on whose efforts these museums depend, gathers together his first objects, he almost never asks himself what will be the ultimate fate of his hoard.”When the engagement party finally arrives, a dressy affair for friends and extended family at the Istanbul Hilton, Fusun turns up as a guest — and so does Orhan Pamuk, who often plays a significant role in his own fiction. For once looking ahead, Kemal instructs the reader: “Those interested in Orhan Bey’s own description of how he felt while dancing with Fusun should look at the last chapter, entitled ‘Happiness.’ ” Pamuk has long been interested in doubles, in characters who reflect himself. In “The Museum of Innocence” he strikes this note again — and what’s more, Kemal strikes it too. “She resembled me,” he remarks of Fusun when he first encounters her selling rip-offs of Parisian fashion. And again: “Had I been a girl, had I been 12 years younger, this is what my body would be like.” Now, in telling their story, he must thoroughly possess her, become this shopgirl, as in Flaubert’s famous line — Madame Bovary, c’est moi. It’s the writer’s claim as an artist, not his understudy’s. Part of the delight in “The Museum of Innocence” is in scouting out the serious games, yet giving oneself over to the charms of Pamuk’s storytelling.
The full review at NYT.