The Museum of Innocence, By Orhan Pamuk trans Maureen Freely

The objects of affection

By Boyd Tonkin
Friday 01 January 2010 01:00

Since so much in Orhan Pamuk's sumptuously rich novel of love and loss in Istanbul turns on obsessive behaviour, let me confess some of my own. The "museum of innocence" his hero plans to open in memory of a grand, doomed love affair will actually exist. Turkey's Nobel laureate has, like his Kemal Basmaci, amassed a vast horde of trivia and trinkets from the city of his youth. He aims to put them on show in the very house he gives in this book to the family of Kemal's beloved, Füsun.

One night last November, as autumn downpours cleared to leave a pale moon shining over the Galata tower, I dived down the steep streets of Çukurcuma that fall towards the waters of the Bosphorus to find and gaze at the still-ramshackle corner property where, in his novel, so much hope and anguish slowly mature. The 1970s Çukurcuma that Pamuk conjures was a down-at-heel melange of old Italian and Levantine families, provincial migrants, students and bohemians. These days, it aptly hosts curio and antique shops.

Stretching over 30 years, but seldom straying far from a few Istanbul neighbourhoods, this is a tale of life-defining desire and devotion marked out in hair-clips and ashtrays, china dogs and ticket stubs, pumpkin seeds and ice-cream cones, salt-shakers and quince graters. Its loving, even relentless, attention to the "the consolation of objects" builds into an overwhelming tribute to "the power of things", which "inheres in the memories they gather up inside them".

Along the winding way, Pamuk summons to new life his home city 30 years ago, as it mourned its past and stumbled into its future. He exhibits all that near-hallucinatory gift for ambience and atmosphere that places him among the great urban novelists of any age. And again, he has Maureen Freely to thank for a gripping and sensitive translation that captures the sensuous plenitude of his finely embroidered prose.

We begin in 1975, with "the happiest moment of my life". In a family-owned flat that serves as their amorous hideaway, the 30-year-old Kemal - pleasure-seeking scion of a nouveau riche clan of entrepreneurs – ecstatically makes love with a poor "distant relation". Füsun's poise and grace first struck him as she worked in a boutique in the Basmacis' smart suburb of Nisantasi. She is just 18, her father a teacher and her mother a seamstress, but her respectability – so vital to a woman's fortunes in this still-repressive time and place, as we learn – already compromised by entering a beauty contest.

Besides, Kemal is engaged to Sibel, the ultimate suitable girl. Discreetly sexy, mildly "Westernised" in fashion and taste (another abiding theme), she figures as the solid match to gladden every heart in the "insular and intimate circle" of Istanbul's commercial elite.

Yet this final bachelor fling deepens into the love of a lifetime. As Kemal's engagement party at the Hilton looms – a superb set-piece on Pamuk's part, which includes a cameo role for his own "boring" family – he and Füsun make love 44 times amid the flat's dusty bric-à-brac. From her first lost earring, the signs and tokens of their love furnish a fetishism that will keep his desire aflame when this chronic cataloguer can no longer relish "the scent of her neck" with its "mixture of algae, sea, burnt caramel and children's biscuits".

With the party comes the crisis. He and Sibel separate after a last-gasp late -summer idyll – depicted, as ever, with magical intensity – in an old waterside mansion. Füsun, proud and hurt by the prospect of a dismal future as another downtrodden secret mistress, marries Feridun: an amiable nonentity who yearns to make it in the film business.

Yet Kemal never gives up hope. With the silent connivance of Füsun's parents, he becomes a near-nightly visitor to their home, lending support to Feridun's movie ambitions while savouring every glance, every word and - above all – every souvenir he can filch from Füsun's chaste company. These sections boast all the lavish, cumulative and hypnotic detail readers of Pamuk will know from My Name is Red or The Black Book - but they may at first try the patience of strangers to his work.

The whole of Istanbul becomes "a galaxy of signs that reminded me of her". Pamuk also unrolls some wonderfully subtle meditations on memory and time that make The Museum of Innocence his most accomplished homage yet to his mentor: Proust. And these nervous evenings of stilted chatter in front of the one-channel TV, as the German wall clock chimes and the canary, Lemon, chirps, also abound in the sad comedy of frustration and evasion.

Time and again, Kemal (or Pamuk) points to an imagined gulf between this politely hidebound household and the plain-speaking freedoms of a fantasy "West". Yet anyone who recalls the sweet suffocation of suburban Britain in the same era will feel utterly at home with Füsun's mum and dad. As always, great writing proves most universal at its most densely local. Indeed, when Aunt Nesibe fusses around this rich cuckoo in their snug nest ("If I made a spinach pastry, would you eat it?"), Pamuk fans from this ex-imperial power may feel that Alan Bennett has taken up residence beside the Bosphorus.

Drama rushes back when the sleazy glitz of the film world pulls Feridun away from his wife. Their distance reawakens Kemal's hope. External shocks – the terror gangs that plagued Istanbul in the late 1970s, the 1980 military coup – do impinge on the romance, but only as casual impediments. Divorce opens the road to a renewal of bliss. The first stage of a car trip to the West shows Pamuk's prose at its most splendidly sensual, but we sense that "a love story that ends happily scarcely deserves more than a few sentences".

A rambling coda investigates the psychology of collecting as "a palliative for a pain", and even hauls in our novelist – "Orhan Bey" – as scribe of this gloriously sorry tale. At last, we grasp the meaning of the haunting early scene where young Kemal sees lambs slaughtered in poor city districts on the Feast of the Sacrifice, in memory of Abraham and Isaac. Culture began, the ritual implies, with substitution. The boy lived; the beast died. Now, in this mesmeric invocation of a passion and a place, memories and mementos must make up for all our absences and losses. Like Kemal, every lover - and every artist too - must learn to be "a shaman who can see the souls of things".

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments