Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 20, 2010

The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Maureen Feely

The Museum of Innocence is a tale of obsessive love,  interwoven with Pamuk’s exploration of Turkish identity. Geographically and politically Turkey has a foot in both the Middle East and Europe – yet belongs in neither.  In Pamuk’s fiction its citizens are attracted by the freedom, wealth and opportunities of the West but they are not only bound by their own traditions, they also value them.  His characters are like adolescents longing for adulthood on the one hand and comfortable with the securities of childhood on the other.

Kemal, the apparent narrator of the story, is thirty and engaged to be married to Sibel when he meets again with Fusun and falls in love with her.  He is the idle son of a wealthy businessman, and Sibel is the ‘perfect’ wife for him.  Not only does she aspire to a sophisticated European lifestyle as Kemal’s family and social circle does, she can apparently even pick a fake designer handbag at a glance, a crucial skill in that milieu.

Sibel’s fatal mistake was to send Kemal back to the shop to exchange it, because that’s where his attraction to Fusun flourishes and they end up in bed together in no time.   It’s the only place they fit together though, because socially, she is of poor family, low status and limited education.  And we know from the very first lines that it’s never going to work out because of the narrator’s nostalgic tone and his declaration that taking Fusun to bed for the first time was the happiest moment in his life although he didn’t know it at the time. (p3)


That love becomes an obsession.  Clandestine as it must be, it is forged in a most unlikely paradise – his mother’s abandoned apartment full of dusty relics of another time.  But much as they would like to be in a dream world of sex, they find that the real world still intrudes among the dirty sheets, as when Fusun scents the French cologne that Sibel has given to Kemal – and the politics of feminism emerging in Turkey cause misunderstandings between them. (p49)  For when Kemal contrasts Sibel surrendering her virginity to him as an act of ‘love and trust’ with Fusun doing so out of modernity and courage, he does not realise at first the offence he has caused.

There was a very long silence.  Having spent years pondering the meaning of this silence, I think I can now summarise it in a balanced way.  That last thing I had said to Fusun had an implied meaning.  I had suggested that what Sibel had done out of love and trust, Fusun had done out of courage and a modern outlook.  I have suffered many years of remorse for labelling Fusun as ‘modern and courageous’, for the compliment also said that I would feel no special obligation to her just because she’d slept with me.  If she was ‘modern’ she would not see sex with a man before marriage as a burden, and neither would she worry about being a virgin on her wedding day.  Just like those European women we entertained in our fantasies, or those legendary women who were said to wander the streets of Istanbul.  How could I have said those words believing that Fusun would warm to them? (p50-1)

How indeed?

The innocence of the book’s title is as much about nostalgia for the innocence of past Turkish culture as it is about the innocence of Kemal and Fusun’s love: in 1970, Turkey young people learn about kissing from American movies, because kissing is never seen anywhere else.  Kemal, well-travelled and quite convinced of his own sophistication and maturity, is politically naive, noting Soviet warships off the coast but having no idea why they were there and observing the spate of political assassinations only through the prism of fashions in funeral practices.  (p83)  Coups, curfews, civil war – it’s all the same to him and just part of the backdrop of his Grand Romance.  ‘It seemed to me, ‘ he says, ‘that I was fascinated by the fire because it spoke to me about the disasters in my own life. (p367)

Kemal thinks that innocence belongs in a museum where it can be cherished by those who recognise its value, but the irony is that his museum also institutionalizes it like an antiquity.  Like Fusun’s virginity, innocence once lost can never be regained, sometimes with profound consequences.  That impulsive act born out of passionate attraction symbolises Turkey’s preoccupation with Western ways: sleeping together before marriage commits Fusun to Kemal (who isn’t free to marry her) – but no other man will ever marry her since she is ‘soiled goods’.   Turkey cannot regain its secure place in the world either: flirting with Western ways has alienated them from its anti-Western neighbours, but they’re not accepted as part of Europe, (as is still the case today with Europe’s reluctance to allow Turkey into the European Union).  No amount of bleach or designer clothing will make Turkish women look like the long-legged German model whose very presence at a party so annoys Sibel; Turks can never be as European as they long to be.  (p79).

Museums, however, are apparently not just collections:

Anyone remotely interested in the politics of civilisation will be aware that  museums are the repositories of those things from which Western Civilisation 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.  (p75)

I find this an interesting observation.  The great museums of the world as geopolitical hubris?  It is no coincidence that these museums are all in democracies, (real ones, that allow free speech so that their citizens may tell the truth about their country’s history) where governments and philanthropists support the notion of sharing the museum collection and its accumulated knowledge with the public.  The great museums of the world are open to visitors from all over the world, usually for free, and increasingly accessible online.  But whether it’s just for the purposes of his character’s obsession or whether he really believes it himself, Pamuk interprets such museums’ ‘hoards’ as an assertion of power rather than evidence of a democratic sharing of knowledge, and what’s more, he attaches the motivation to ‘western civilisation’ as if it were a monolithic bloc.

Kemal/Pamuk seem to want to redefine the concept of museum, but his descriptions of the ones Kemal visits for inspiration focus on trivia and the detritus of ordinary lives.  I don’t want to confuse the character’s views with the author’s, but Pamuk is a political author when all’s said and done, and he’s angst-ridden about what we might term Western Civilisation Versus The Rest. When Kemal is telling us at length about his bizarre relationship with Fusun, her husband and her parents, he says: Isn’t the purpose of a novel, or of a museum for that matter, to relate our memories with such sincerity as to transform individual happiness into a happiness that all can share? (p337) Kemal despises the significant museums full of tourists and would rather seek out the obscure and eccentric ones, which are really idiosyncratic collections rather than museums. Great museums, the ones I like best, collect, curate and exhibit systematically, much like botanic gardens which are a scientific collection of plants even though they may simply look like attractive gardens.

I love visiting museums.  When I was child we travelled a lot, and wherever we lived, my father always took us to the museum, the art gallery, and of course the library (which then became our Saturday habit until we moved again.)  I must have been about five when I first went to the V&A and was entranced – my father had an instinctive gift for finding exhibits to fascinate small children.  On my adult travels I’ve been a visitor to museums of all sorts but especially the great museums of London, Vienna, Paris, the Vatican, Rome, Florence and Venice.  Here at home I was an annual visitor to the Melbourne one until before they jazzed it up and ruined it.  (Heartbreaking!)  I long to visit the museums in Russia, am tempted to visit New York to see theirs, and am off to Europe again later this year and will at last see the ones in Dublin and in the major cities of Spain.  Yes, these museums are full of tourists, and some of them are crass, but I don’t like the snobbery implicit in the assumption that tourists are visiting these places because they think they ‘ought to’ and don’t actually value the beautiful and intriguing things they see.   I don’t quite understand why Pamuk has chosen to set these great museums and the small idiosyncratic private museum in opposition – because they all contribute to the cultural life of a city, don’t they?  He even sets up a bizarre kind of opposition amongst collectors, labelling the Proud (who predominate in the West) as ambitious for their collections and determined to locate them eventually in a museum, and the Bashful as pure – who collect as solace, or out of compulsion.  I wonder how Pamuk would classify my little collection of Booker Prize winning first editions, tucked away unobtrusively in my private library, but bragged about on the net?!

Pamuk wears his postmodernism lightly until he himself intrudes into the story as a character at the engagement party.  He’s there as a young man, nothing special about him or his family, who are resentful of the nouveau riche since they’ve squandered their fortune.    It is he who is able to tell Kemal how many times Fusun danced at this party and indeed that he himself was one of her partners.  In a bizarre twist, Kemal-the-narrator advises the reader who is interested in Orhan-the-author’s feelings about this, to consult the last chapter called ‘Happiness’. (p124)  It is in this last chapter that we see an accumulation of all kinds of PoMo tricks that have been played throughout the novel, including distrust of the author/narrator, metafiction, intertextuality, poioumena, technoculture,  faction absurdity and playfulness.  (The maximalism is obvious from the moment you heft the book, of course.)

Source: Wikipedia

This playing about with the role of the author made me start thinking about Janus, the two-faced Roman god who looks both ways.  Kemal in his role as narrator looks both forwards and backwards in time, and while he presents himself to his readers as someone trying to offer a ‘balanced’ picture of events, he’s an awful hypocrite, no different really to any other philanderer.  Because of the prevailing Turkish attitude towards premarital sex, he risks the prospects of two girls, lying to both of them and everybody else, pretending to be modern when he harbours the same patriarchal ideas as everybody else.  And when he sacrifices his relationship with Sibel for a greater love i.e. Fusun, he’s enacting a bizarre kind of parody of the Biblical Abraham sacrificing his son to please his God.

Source: Wkipedia

‘At the beginning, of course, the prophet Abraham has no idea that a lamb will take the place of his son…but he believes in God so much, loves him so much that in the end he trusts no harm can come from Him….If we love someone very much, we know that even if we give him the most valuable thing we have, we know not to expect harm from him.  That is what a sacrifice is.'(p38)

I laughed out loud at Kemal’s weird interpretation of Caravaggio’s ‘The Sacrifice of Isaac’ as ‘the unremarked lesson [which is] that it is possible to substitute for one’s most cherished object another, and this was why I felt so attached to the things of Fusun’s that I had collected over the years. (p501)  Tank Bey’s false teeth as a substitute for a beautiful woman?? (p496) Scholars dissecting the ‘structural relations between Fusun’s barrettes and brushes and the deceased canary’??  Playfulness indeed…(p525)

How effective is Pamuk’s portrait of an obsessive?  It’ s not long since I read Henry Handel Richardson’s Maurice Guest, which travels the same ground (without the political issues). As I wrote in my blog post about that book:

 Maurice Guest … is a brilliant study of obsession, explored from both male and female points of view.  As I read it, I found myself reacting as Madeleine the character does.  Irritated, observing these self-absorbed characters weave their own web of self-destruction, I kept thinking ‘Why don’t they just stop…?’   But of course they can’t.

Obsession is a theme that crops up again and again in literature.  Captain Ahab in Moby Dick is obsessed with the whale; Don Quixote is obsessed by chivalry.   In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff’s mutual obsession with Catherine is gothic, while Peter Ackroyd in Chatterton, treats Charles’s obsession with a 17th century poet with some levity.  Mostly obsession leads to the destruction of self; Don Quixote’s rehabilitation is rare.

Kemal’s obsession is a bit creepy, and his undiminished adoration over decades is enough to make any victim of a stalker despair.  Right from the beginning he purloins bits and pieces of Fusun’s belongings to keep, including a precious earring. When things go wrong, he constructs an elaborate mental map of places to avoid because they remind him of her.  His jealousy reaches so far back he even castigates a business associate, Turgay Bey, for fancying Fusun as a teenager, and compromises an important deal over it.  After he has lost her to Feridun when he is blathering on about when he brushed up against her or touched her hand, it’s not possible to tell what Fusun’s feelings are about this – because Kemal the obsessive only tells us his own point of view.   The impact on her career is nicely summed up by WC”s column in the newspaper (p361-3) but is she complicit in Kemal’s obsession, or not? She’s a capricious young woman, angry about her ambitions being frustrated by her ‘protector’ and confused, as so many of us were in that turbulent era, about how to redefine gender identity without rejecting love.   What might have happened, had fate not intervened?

By coincidence, I’ve also been reading Balzac’s Letters of Two Brides, and came across this passage about jealousy:

What is holier and more precious than jealousy?  …jealousy is an ever-wakeful sentinel; it is to love what pain is to the body, the faithful herald of evil. (Chapter XX111, Kindle Edition, Locations 1474-79)

Kemal treasures his jealousy in much the same way.

Source: Wikipedia

I’ve also been pondering the significance of Pamuk’s choice of name for his central character.  Kemal has the same name as much-revered Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the military hero who led Turkey to independence and implemented a rigorous program of modernisation and Europisation (I think I just made that word up).  He reformed everything from the alphabet to the dress code, introduced mass education and universal suffrage,  legislated for equal rights for women, and critically, reformed the constitution to ensure the separation of religion and state and removal of Islamic law from the legal system.  Since the creation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923 there has been widespread veneration of this man and his accomplishments, which in the long term have resulted in Turkey becoming increasingly integrated with the West: classified as a Developed Country; achieving membership of NATO and the G20; and being considered a regional power of considerable consequence.  (It’s just a pity they haven’t achieved free speech; putting Pamuk on trial for writing the truth about the 1915 Turkish genocide of Armenians was such a totalitarian thing to do, no wonder Pamuk now lives in America.)

Anti-Western efforts by fundamentalist Muslims have largely been suppressed by popular support for modernism, in part because to be anti-modernist is to be unpatriotic and contemptuous of Turkey’s proud history since Ataturk and independence. (In Snow, Pamuk wrote about current tensions over clothing which showed the politics behind the choices people may inadvertently make.  For men to wear a tie or a woman to let her hair free, is interpreted by militant Islamists to be pro Western; for modernists, even the idea of these interpretations is offensive.)

So what exactly is Pamuk inferring by naming his character after the hero? I’d love to know what a Turkish reader thinks about this.  Is Pamuk saying that Ataturk was obsessive or confused?  That his ideas, enthusiastically adopted in the 20th century, belong in a museum in the 21st?   Or is he just playing games, as postmodern authors do?

Oh, there is so much to think and write about in this book, I could ramble on for ages but I’d better stop! It’s a great choice for sophisticated book groups: questions to help tease out its treasures can be found here.  It is long, maybe a bit laboured in the middle (especially the ‘Sometimes’ chapter) but it’s well worth persisting with.  (The chapter about Kemal teaching Fusun to drive and the Kafkaesque process of getting a licence are an absolute hoot, though not so funny later.)

Among the best of the professional reviews online are:

BTW The Musee Edith Piaf (p495) does exist, so I assume the others mentioned do too.  There really was a collision between two ships on the Bosphorus on November 15th 1979 (p366-7), and you can read a brief summary of the political chaos in 1970s Turkey here.

Author: Orhan Pamuk
Title: The Museum of Innocence
Translated by Maureen Feely
Publisher: Faber & Faber 2009
ISBN: 9780571236992
Source: Personal Library, purchased from Benn’s Books $35.00


  1. Oh Lisa, looks like you’ve written a comprehensive review here. I won’t read it now cos I haven’t read the book yet – I did plan to read it for the group’s discussion but I don’t think I’m going to get to it. It will have to wait until another time I think.


    • Oh bother, I was looking forward to hearing what you think about it – it’s so rich in themes and allusions, too much for one small brain to sort out all by herself! Lisa


  2. Sorry ’bout that, but it looks like you’ve given it a good shot! I bought it for my brother for Xmas, and then every time I’ve gone back to that shop they haven’t had another copy…but that’s not the reason. It is just time…. Am now in a rush to read The little stranger for my f2f on Tuesday; I did not do my Mansfield Park homework for Jane Austen meeting today; AusLit is doing Ransom this month and my f2f next month and I haven’t read it yet; and I need to get onto Appo… I think this means Orhan Pamuk and Angela Carter will be getting the flick! Oh it’s a hard life being a reader!!


  3. I found this to be a very, very frustrating read — and I sense some similar frustration in your response. For me, the strongest parts were when Pamuk illustrated some of the aspects of the East-West tension and dilemma (his description of the Hilton and fascination with cinema are two more examples). Yet all of those observations seem to be reduced to side references, with the exception of the premarital sex fascination.

    That meant that the “obsession” theme dominated the book and, for my taste at least, simply did not have enough weight to sustain interest. In fact, it got quite dreary in the latter parts when the incredibly slow development was entirely predictable. Pamuk does not write particularly friendly prose (and isn’t very good at description) so that slowness became almost painful.

    I had a different take on the “museums” issue than you did. I don’t think he was criticizing or mocking the world’s great museums and galleries but rather offering a pathetic contrast with the innumerable ego-driven collections (like the Museum of Innocence) that people think deserve attention. I can think of three in the Calgary area alone that have gone bankrupt and disappeared in the last five or six years — all without a visit from me, I might add.

    This was my first Pamuk and I think it will also be my last. I have to say that I think he is quite over-rated.


  4. Hi Kevin, some of the other reviewers I’ve read have suggested that Museum isn’t as good as Pamuk’s other books (of which I’ve only read Snow). Writing a book around the theme of obsession in the first person is necessarily a risky thing, because done at length (as it must be, to make the point) it can be tedious indeed.
    But I am fascinated by Turkey’s struggle with identity. It’s a bit like ours here in Oz: we’re neither Asian nor British, though unlike Turkey aspiring to transcend its geography and history we don’t really want to be either. Their quandary is complicated by Islamism and I do think Pamuk has made me more aware that the issue of modernity for Muslims is much more complicated than I had first thought. I think Museum also depicts that angst shared by many Middle Eastern countries that were in ancient times powerful empires and now are not – symbolically, they are reduced to having inane museums because in ignorance of their own heritage they neglected and sold off their antiquities. They want them back now and I do think that Pamuk is expressing that resentment (in part motivated by tourism dollars) against the great museums of the world. I’m just not sure whether he shares it or not…


  5. Like you (I think), I was more interested in the way Pamuk portrayed Turkey’s struggle with identity and the way that individuals feel that than I was with the obsession aspect of the story. In fact, despite the length of the book, I kept wanting more of that bigger tension. Just as you in Oz have some similar conflicts, those of us residing next door to the U.S. have some similar identity issues. I don’t know if you have ever read The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric — if you haven’t, you should give it a try. It addresses that issue and I fear the Pamuk’s book for me suffered in the comparison because I think Andric does a better job. It is an outstanding novel.

    The final point in your comment about linking the symbolism of the narrator’s museum to that conflict was one that did not occur to me as I read the book and on reflection it is a good point, although I am still not sure that that was the author’s intention. I am very glad that your review caused me to rethink this book — as I said earlier, I did find it a frustrating read and your thoughts have helped to bring some of it into a better focus.


  6. The Bridge on the Drina sounds fascinating, and I have ordered it from the Book Depository. Some time ago I read an amazing N/F book called The Impossible Country by Brian Hall about the Balkans, and became interested to know more about how peoples who have lived contentedly side-by-side can suddenly switch to barbaric enmity. Thanks for the recommendation!


  7. I should note that I came to The Bridge on the Drina through a recommendation of a former newspaper colleague who knows that part of the world well from time as a foreign correspondent. I had asked him for recommendations on books that would help me understand that confusing part of the world. He gave me four lengthy non-fiction titles (it takes a long time to explain the Balkans) and then added the novel, saying that for him it did a better job of explaining than the historians did. Quite a tribute to a historical novel, I would say.

    It also very much influenced my positive opinion of The Glass Room last year. The central “character” in Mawer’s book is a house; the bridge is equally the central character of Andric’s book.


  8. All lovers of literature, I think, are intrigued by human nature, and what happened in the Balkans is especially intriguing because (as Brian Hall says in his book) they lived together for so long in harmony and then it all fell apart. I suspect that literature is better at explaining this than NF, and I’m thinking also of The Cellist of Sarajevo when I make this claim for fiction.
    The Glass Room is on the TBR, but I don’t think I’ll get to it this year, alas.


  9. I’m a big fan of ‘The Bridge Over the Drina’ by Andric as well as ‘Snow’ by Orhan Pamuk. I find Pamuk quite exhausting to read so probably won’t read ‘The Museum of Innocence’ now.


  10. Tony, I hope it’s not my review that’s put you off!


  11. Now that’s what I call an in-depth review! Fascinating stuff, particularly the discussion around museums.

    I have been thinking about reading this book, but have now read so many reviews in the newspapers that its rather put me off. I feel I know as much as I need to know about it now – especially after reading your review above.

    Pamuk is highly regarded as a writer and no doubt one day I will get around to reading him.


  12. I think his book before this must have inspired this one lisa that was a history of his life and also of istanbul and Turkey as a whole ,his homeland makes such great material for books they are a country looking two ways wanting to be western but also with a huge middle eastern tradition ,all the best stu


    • I must read more of Pamuk, I’ve had My Name is Red on the TBR for ages, but read the other two first…


  13. […] White Castle because I’ve read and really liked three of Orhan Pamuk’s novels: Snow, The Museum of Innocence, and Silent House.  But The White Castle, despite its pedigree as winner of the 1990 Independent […]


  14. […] For a detailed analysis, see Lisa’s review at ANZ Lit lovers. […]


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