Review: Orhan Pamuk’s "The Innocence of Objects"

Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence in Istanbul

There is a ticket printed in every copy of Orhan Pamuk’s 2008 novel The Museum of Innocence. The ticket is good for one free admission to the eponymous Museum—a real place, housed in a small building in the Çukurcuma district of Istanbul and curated by the author himself. Finished four years after the publication of the novel, this real-life Museum of Innocence houses objects ostensibly belonging to the novel’s narrator, Kemal, who amasses an enormous collection related to his dead beloved and to the era in which he loved her. Pamuk himself makes a cameo in the novel as “Orhan Pamuk,” a novelist interested in telling Kemal’s story. In real life, Pamuk calls himself the “chief promoter” of Kemal’s museum.

Lest all this sound like an elaborate marketing scheme for the book, let me assure you that, if anything, the opposite is true: the novel is an elaborate ad for the museum. Pamuk says he had the idea for the museum before he started the novel, which was largely written around and for the objects he gathered. In fact, his original intention was for the novel to take the form of an annotated museum catalog, and he does not conceal his faint disappointment that he ultimately wrote what he calls a “classic novel” instead.

Pamuk did write his museum catalog in the end: The Innocence of Objects, recently published in its English language edition by Abrams Books. It is a squarish volume, filled with gorgeous photographs of the museum’s interior, including close-ups of the numbered display cases corresponding to chapters of the novel. A single butterfly earring, a petrified glass of raki, an array of toy dogs, newspaper clippings, old photos, decorative hair combs, vintage watches and clocks (a lot of these), women’s shoes and clothes, and hundreds of other objects fill the vitrines.

The exhibition photos are accompanied by Pamuk’s lively, sometimes dazzling commentary, which ranges freely from personal anecdotes to meditations on aesthetics to whimsical ‘memories’ of his fictional protagonist (“Kemal once said to me…”). There is also an explanation of the long process that went into building the museum. Real estate often makes for a good story, and Pamuk tells us in detail about his search for the right building at the right price. He also describes how he enlisted visual artists to construct certain items from the novel, such as the French handbag that Kemal buys from the shop where Fusün works, or to create more symbolic objects, such as a “Black Light Machine” representing Kemal’s nighttime melancholy and a white porcelain “broken” heart.

The thin premise holding together this collection is the plot of Pamuk’s 2008 novel, a classic story of boy-meets-girl, boy-gets-engaged-to-another-girl, boy-starts-obsessively-collecting-the-first-girl’s-stuff. Set in 1970s Istanbul, The Museum of Innocence is the plaintive first-person account of Kemal, the scion of an Istanbul family whose textile business has placed them in the ranks of Turkey’s nouveau riche. For years, Kemal entertains a long obsession with a shop girl named Fusün, a poor distant cousin with whom he shares a brief affair when she is eighteen and he is thirty. The physical relationship, interrupted by his engagement to an eminently suitable (and likable) upper class girl, is followed by Kemal’s personal breakdown and many years of mutually agreeable stalking of Fusün. Kemal has dinner with Fusün’s family and watches TV with them almost every night, always at a chaste arm’s-length from Fusün herself. Meanwhile, he amasses thousands of objects that Fusün has touched, or which remind him of Fusün; later in life, these objects become the talismans of his sentimental longing.

Nostalgia, of course, is one of the great motives of first person fiction. In modern novels, it tends to be a problematic nostalgia, celebrating past eras and relationships that are revealed over the course of the story to be vastly troubled, or even corrupt: take The Good Soldier, for example, or Lolita (which is explicitly referenced in The Museum of Innocence). In both his novel and his museum, Pamuk’s admitted yearning for the Turkey of his childhood fuels his portrayal of Kemal’s monumental obsession with the past. It is no accident that, in the novel, the character “Orhan Pamuk” is not a contemporary of Kemal, but quite a bit younger. In one of the more telling anecdotes in the exhibition catalog, the photographer Ara Güler complains to Pamuk, “You only like my photographs because they remind you of what Istanbul was like when you were a child.”

But for Pamuk, this museum is not just a time capsule. It is also a proving ground: a chance for him to assert the totality of his persona as an artist and a Turk. (Perhaps this is why the museum catalog is far more energetic, as a prose work, than the novel is.) Pamuk’s abandoned childhood dream of being a visual artist is folded into this enterprise: “The six to eight months I spent going over the tiniest details in the museum resuscitated the dormant painter inside me.”

Then, too, there’s the question of identity. The book jacket of The Innocence of Objects states that Pamuk “divides his time between Istanbul and New York City,” and this division is signified in the museum by an Ottoman pocket watch belonging to Kemal that has two faces, showing the time in Turkey and Europe (“The East-West Watch, C’est Moi”). It should not evade us that Pamuk’s museum is in the private sector, bought with money made, in large part, from selling a certain vision of Turkey to foreigners. Making oblique references to his legal problems with the Turkish government, Pamuk implies that, at a certain point in his life, the museum project was a mental refuge from the state’s oppressiveness. In his “Modest Museum Manifesto,” Pamuk sets the innocence of his museum, which tells the story of an individual, against the never-innocent agenda of museums that glorify the nation-state.

Recently I went for drinks with D., a Princeton graduate student specializing in Turkey who is part Turkish himself. When I brought up Pamuk’s project, he had this to say about the museum, which he had visited: “It’s too… perfect.” Leafing again through the catalog, it struck me that he was right; the Museum of Innocence is a little too perfect: calculated, artful, precious. It is a tightly controlled enterprise, a little lacking in vitality or tension.

This controlled atmosphere can be justified in part by the obsessiveness of the character of Kemal, whose mania is exhausting for the first couple hundred pages of The Museum of Innocence, and then simply becomes part of the air of the novel. Kemal thinks his main psychological problem (he has a few) is that he is unable to recognize happiness in the moment, as it is happening. This is the human condition, as Pamuk is at pains to enunciate in both the novel and catalog, and Kemal’s inability to know happiness as it happens isn’t unusual. Neither is it unusual that Kemal, like other lovers, dwells unhealthily on objects that his beloved has worn or touched. What is peculiar about Kemal’s case is that these objects become his main obsession, even while his beloved is still alive. Rather than trying to win Fusün back, or free her from her loveless marriage, or even get to know her better, Kemal becomes addicted to gathering and handling Fusün-related objects. Her untimely death doesn’t interrupt this fetishistic collecting, but intensifies it.

Looking closely at Pamuk’s display cases, as the exhibition catalog invites us to do, can be an uneasy experience. The cozy feel of the museum’s interior, the antiqued numbers over the vitrines, and the faded beauty of its objects are all part of the same curatorial strategy: to generate in us a false sense of longing, a nostalgia for something that neither we nor anyone else has ever experienced. When we look at real mementos and relics—a ticket stub from a first date, a drawer full of a dead family member’s possessions—their emotional power derives from a painful tension: the mundane materiality of the things versus the invisibility of the history that resides in them. We look at the artifacts, and they signify because they survive, while so much else has perished. To present fake artifacts, then, as this museum does, is a fundamentally awkward proposition, no matter how eloquently it’s rationalized or how beautifully it’s executed.

D. remarked that he found the most affecting display in Pamuk’s museum to be the mounted and framed collection of 4,213 cigarette stubs smoked by Fusün. The stubs are arranged in long columns by year, and each is labeled with a fragment Kemal wrote about the day on which they were smoked. I agreed with D.: the piece was impressive on its own, irrespective of the museum, the way that the product of any vast or meticulous labor is impressive. It is the gesture in the museum that most closely performs Kemal’s idea of “the greatest happiness a museum can bring: to see Time turning into Space.”