Monday, 1 February 2010






Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel, ‘The Museum of Innocence’ opens on a perfect spring afternoon in 1975. The first paragraph reads like a classic case of reckless passion in collision with Turkey’s bourgeoisie conventions.

It begins thus: ‘It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn’t know it.’ It is a dissertation of love laced with obsessive passion.

Kemal Basmaci, scion of a wealthy Industrialist family in Istanbul is about to become engaged to Sibel, a suitable woman from his own class, who has already – as Kemal puts it – ‘given me her virginity’, though only because she trusts in his honor as her betrothed. But all dreams of ever happy union crumbles when Kemal falls deliriously in love with a distant cousin of his, a poor relative, the déclassé Fusun Keskin, who is a shop girl working in a boutique. Fusun too deliberately elects to give her virginity to Kemal, entering the taboo realm of Turkish bourgeoisie. Pamuk writes with lyrical passion about the deflowering ceremony juxtaposing images of lambs being slaughtered on the Feast of the Sacrifice. Outside the apartment, all over Istanbul, in every corner, many many lambs are being butchered. Kemal comes to believe that he can have his cake and eat it too. This dichotomy creates a rift between Kemal and the society he moves in. As the engagement between Kemal and Sibel take place, Fusun goes into hiding.

It takes almost a year for Kemal to find the whereabouts of Fusun. But by then it’s too late as Sibel senses Kemal’s withdrawal from her, both emotionally and physically. Though she is sympathetic to the point of defying society, she has already become a culprit of the jaded system of sexual politics that the Turkish society is immersed in. From then on, Kemal’s life becomes a long torment of all consuming passion.

For nine years Kemal finds all manner of excuses to visit the other Istanbul, a house in the impoverished backstreets that Fusun shares with her parents and her childish husband, who has dreams of making it big in the Turkish film industry. As Kemal falls into the middle class pace of life in Istanbul, enjoying the consolation of the dinner table in front of the television, he also begins to drink like a fish, perhaps to anesthetize his passion towards Fusun. Kemal resembles Devdas.

Women in gilded Istanbul do not necessarily want arranged marriages, yet they do no know how to find men on their own either. Kemal the protagonist and narrator is a gawky and shy thirty year old who has never seen a couple kiss off screen in Turkey. While Turkey’s elite send their daughters to Paris and London on shopping sprees, while also being told in no uncertain terms that they must be virgins on their wedding night, or at least restrain caution albeit discreetly. In the novel we glimpse a Turkey which is torn between an ambition to be liberated, even as it is reluctant to let go of conservatism, mainly of the male chauvinist variety, the brutal model of masculinity prevalent in Turkish culture. Ultimately this makes for an unexpectedly conservative position on Kemal’s (and perhaps on Pamuk’s) part.

Pamuk has described Innocence ‘as anthropology of my own experiences.’ This is obvious as the first narration is taken up by the author himself, a technique Pamuk had experimented with in his earlier work My Name is Red and Snow with panache.

Nine years of obsessive passion also makes Kemal a compulsive collector of objects, the everyday objects of ordinary lives collected and shown in ‘The Museum of Innocence.’

PS: However much I would like to desist from making these tailpiece remarks, I am forced by habit to look at all reading with a minutely critical eye. As minute as my reading finally is.

Pamuk’s taking over the narrative from his protagonist smacks of gimmick. Like Hitchcock and several Bollywood directors like Subhash Ghai and Karan Johar, Pamuk has an affinity to present himself in most of his novels, which did not jar so much in his earlier works. He promotes himself blatantly in the concluding chapters, reveling in the now famous first line of The New Life, which he says has been bought for an advertising jingle, preening himself in the hallowed status of Turkish elite that he straddles. Out of the mammoth 530 odd pages of the book, more than two hundred pages are devoted to the nightly dinner ceremonies in his girlfriend’s lower middle class household, though some of his narratives are humorous and similar to Marquez.

That Pamuk is actually making a museum comes as a comic faux passé. The many interviews splashed all over also bring on a quirky smile. But let us also not forget the harsh manner in which Turkey treated Pamuk when he aired his scathing remarks on the Armenian genocide and the ethnic cleansing of Kurds. Though he escaped a fatwa, Pamuk has been criticized for misrepresenting the Turkish spirit by the conservative bureaucracy of Turkey.

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