Those Obscure Objects of Desire: The Political Economy of Civilization in Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence

by Ahmad Saidullah

Book_museum_of_innocence_jpg_280x450_q85 The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk’s first novel since he won the 2006 Nobel Prize, is set in the period following the mid-seventies when the author was buying books in Istanbul “like a frantic person who was desperate to understand why Turkey was so poor.” A student of Turkish history and the politics of civilization, Pamuk noted in an essay on his library in The New York Review of Books that “in the 1970s, the stars of every bookstore were the large historical tomes that sought out the root causes of Turkey’s poverty and ‘backwardness’ and its social and political upheavals.”

The Museum of Innocence frames this history around the star-crossed fates of characters from the Turkish elite who live in Nişantaşı, a wealthy neighborhood in the Pera part of Istanbul where Pamuk grew up, and their poorer counterparts in the city. The central plot of Museum, a six-page story about desire and difference, appeared in The New Yorker. While shopping for Sibel, his rich socialite fiancée, Kemal Basacı, the son of one of Istanbul’s wealthiest industrialists, falls for Füsun Keskin, the shopgirl at the boutique, who sells him a fake designer handbag.

Füsun, whose name means “charm,” “enchantment,” “magic,” and “spell” in Turkish, happens to be Kemal’s poor cousin. The Basacıs shun her family members not just for their poverty but for their scandalous and somewhat déclassé decision in allowing Füsun to compete in a beauty pageant. Using the return of the knock-off “Jenny Colon” handbag (the real Jenny Colon was a nineteenth-century actress and Nerval’s muse) as a pretext for meeting again, Kemal and Füsun, a sexually precocious beauty modelled on Lolita, start a clandestine affair in an apartment in Merhamet. Kemal neglects the family business as his passion grows. Frustrated with his obsession and worried about the public odium that will follow the scandal, Sibel breaks off the engagement. Füsun disappears and Kemal on his visits to the Keskins starts collecting tokens of the affair that become his Museum of Innocence.

In the drawn-out second part of the book, Kemal resumes contact with Füsun when she returns to Istanbul with a husband, Feridun, an aspiring screenwriter. Kemal and Feridun pretend to help Füsun become a Yeşilçam film star but secretly do all they can to thwart her. Eventually, Kemal founds Lemon Films and produces a film adaptation of Turkish novelist Halit Ziya Uşaklıgil’s Broken Love (Kırık Hayatlar), a once-censored novel about unrequited love, in which Füsun stars. Her film career is shortlived.

The book ends with chapters on collectors and museums but not before Orhan Pamuk makes his second deus ex machina appearance in the book. He addresses Kemal in a ponderous metafictional apostrophe: “in the book you are telling me your own story and saying ‘I,’ Kemal Bey. I am speaking in your voice. Right now I am trying very hard to put myself in your place, to be you.”

Although Museum is written in an accessible middle style with balanced sentences that are almost flat and static, with few of the syntactical hijinks of some of Pamuk’s other novels, it is one of his more troubling books. He has claimed that this novel is about love and “love,” says a character in the book, “is Leyla and Macnun,” a reference to the Azeri poet Fużūlī’s classic ghazal about ill-starred lovers. Much of Museum’s plotline, though, moves between banal dialogue (“I am a penniless shopgirl, while you are the son of a wealthy factory owner”), platitudes (“Happiness means being close to the one you love, that’s all”) and coy, almost adolescent, descriptions of sex suited to the Yeşilçam romantic film melodramas that Pamuk adored in 1970s and ’80s Istanbul. Ever the bibliophile, Pamuk does not fail to include references to Nabokov’s Lolita, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Nerval’s Aurélia and Uşaklıgil who had modelled his style on French romanticism. He also refers to Flaubert’s affair with Louise Colet and the use of love tokens in Madame Bovary.

Kemal’s lovesick apathy is compared to Aurélia’s “crude dullness” in Nerval’s story, that appears “once love has fled.” Pamuk’s use of a deadpan, rational narrative voice throughout, arising no doubt from that “crude dullness,” rather than using alternating or more frantic ways of telling, make the passionate love affair largely unconvincing and boringly mundane.

Kemal’s melancholic hüzün that pervades this book is reflected in a confession: “I was slowly growing more adept at distracting myself with the happiness I found in objects.” Kemal attends Lovers of Collectible Objects Association meetings and occasionally brings out and caresses a handkerchief, a lock of hair, or a slipper to remind him of his lover but the real lineaments of male desire are the imitation net stockings, Sylvie (another Nerval reference) perfume, and high heels that he apparently finds erotic. And that’s about as erotic as it gets.

Kemal’s obsessive behaviour is foreshadowed when Sibel points out a guest at their engagement party in the Hilton. “Cold Suphi” had collected roomfuls of matchboxes after his wife left him. In his study of discourses of obsession, the French thinker Roland Barthes thought that counting, collecting and cataloguing were Sade’s, Fourier’s and Loyola’s attempts to articulate a logic of desire. Similarly, Pamuk imposes narrative rationality and control over the seemingly incommensurable tensions between desire and reason. On the surface, the narrative functions as a Foucauldian mathesis, a classificatory order imposed on absence and romantic and sexual longing but this obsession has another instrumentality and purpose in Museum which will be examined later.

In one enumerative phase of his own Macnun-like lovesickness, Kemal counts 339 days since he saw Sibel at the Hilton. He claims to have visited 5,723 museums and paid 1,593 visits to Keskin household over 409 weeks. By the end, he has collected 4,213 cigarette butts, 237 hair barrettes, 419 national lottery tickets and a quince grater. About 1,500 everyday objects and lovers’ ephemera are organized in 83 sections, one for each of the 83 chapters of the book, in an actual Museum of Innocence building that Pamuk bought in çukurcuma, Istanbul’s antiques district. Any reader with a copy of the book gets free entry to the museum. A map is printed in the book and the ticket is on page 520.

In the hands of lesser pulp writers like Candace Bushnell, this obsession with objects is merely product placement. Pamuk includes references such as “this Alaska Frigo ice cream” and “a cigarette from the packet of Maltepes” but he has another project in mind. It becomes clear from some passages that the meaning of desire lies outside the text. Museum refers to “the photograph I display here” but this is not reproduced in the book. It points to an actual referent in the museum. While the book doubles as a museum guide, the objects do not advance the narrative or construct the story as they would in another Tropenmuseum where each object tells its own story.

The quince grater that Kemal carries during the army coup, for example, is just an accompaniment, unattached to the action, except as an epoch marker, a signifying accident. Its use is not organic to the novel whereas in Sebald’s “documentary novels” textual tokens, reprinted tickets, photographs, doodles and sketches carry some emotional ballast as pieces of evidence that evoke memories of a repressed and silenced past. Although Aleksandar Hemon, who also used photographs in The Lazarus Project, claims that Sebald’s textual objects “fail as documents of the past, they can only signify loss,” they are integral to the narrative. Kemal’s museum objects are not even always associated with Füsun or with sexual passion; many belong to Pamuk’s ideological fetish for specific commodities in Turkey’s economic past. He has called the memorabilia in his Museum of Innocence “vessels of a lost past.”

The Turkish-American academic Nilgun Anadolu-Okur has noted the importance of historical settings in Pamuk’s novels. At the beginning of Museum, Pamuk gets in a few digs at the Nişantaşı elite who are obsessed with owning and operating the latest western gadgets that had begun to enter Turkey as a result of the liberalization of trade during Prime Minister Adnan Menderes’ rule. Such policies which were favoured by the Turkish upper classes “brought the country to insolvency due to an enormous increase in imports of goods and technology.” The resulting ban on western commodities resulted in the Pamuks and other rich Turks losing part of their wealth. Some of the commodities in the museum belong to an age of innocence before westernization or globalization and seem to be tied personally to the dwindling of the Pamuk family fortune.

This fixation with economic history is echoed in an earlier work. In Pamuk’s fifth novel, The New Life (Yeni Hayat), the third to be translated into English and which Museum resembles the most, the character of Dr. Fine refers to this period as the “Great Conspiracy.” Fine, like Pamuk, is nostalgic for local commodities that are no longer available in Turkey. (The very title of the book, Yeni Hayat, actually refers to a brand of caramels once produced in Turkey.) The cigarettes that the characters smoke — Kemal collects the butts for his museum — or the sweets that they eat were produced in a context of increasing labour-rights agitation with the development of working-class consciousness in the Turkey of the 1940s and ’50s but none of this is referred to in the “curator’s” notes. Many dimensions and different viewpoints that shape the meanings of objects have been omitted in this ideology of representation.

Sibel’s comment about Kemal having “some sort of complex about being rich in a poor country” has resonance for Pamuk whose writings are marked by an obsession, a symptom of a deeply internalized sense of inferiority about Turkey’s status as a poor nation. He has been particularly wary of the anger of those poor Turks who turn to extremism. He called them “the damned” in Other Colors, probably the weakest essay collection by a Nobel laureate. Pamuk’s fascination for period objects is shaped by his politics and aesthetics and arises in part from his sense of his own location and practices as a westernized writer from Turkey, part of the elite, unique from those who had come before him.

The Turkish writer during the revolutionary and modernization phases was allied to the project of nation building. In the hands of such literary giants as Yeşar Kemal and Nâzım Hikmet, literature represented the voices of the poor, the oppressed and the dispossessed in the struggle to build a just and equitable society. In Pamuk’s words,

the authors who felt a social responsibility, authors who felt that literature serves morality and politics…They were flat realists, not experimental. Like authors in so many poor countries, they wasted their talent on trying to serve their nation. I did not want to be like them.

The Turkish novelist and academic Elif şafak notes that

with the establishment of a modern, secular Turkey, literature took on an even greater role. The new elite, depicting the new regime as a fundamental transformation from eastern civilisation to western civilisation, aimed to make culture the cement of the modern Turkish nation-state…placing writers at the forefront of efforts to mould Turkey society.

Pamuk chose to focus on the westernized upper-middle class urban milieu that he knew best. The west, Pamuk noted, “became an important part of Turkish identity.”

Pamuk was not alone in this rupture with tradition. There were other Turkish modernizers who, like him, saw westernization as a means of overcoming “provincial ways.” However, Pamuk has also dismissed the secularizing, de-cosmopolitanizing and westernizing impulses in Turkish history, and sometimes the works of other Turkish writers. who were influenced, as he was, by western arts and mores. The list includes newspaper columnist and novelist Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar whose epigraph opens Museum and whom he praised in Istanbul. This has left the impression that Pamuk has tried sedulously to silence other voices in Turkey’s conversation with the west. Many Turkish writers, including Yeşar Kemal at the Friedenpreis in Frankfurt and Elif şafak, though, have continued to speak up in Pamuk’s support.

As Freely noted in a 2006 article on Pamuk in The Guardian, to grow up in Istanbul was to struggle with the “double consciousness” of dual eastern and western identities. The divide was always deeper in the westernized enclave of Nişantaşı which was equated with an ersatz Europeanness. In Snow, Blue tells Ka contemptuously “you are just a typical little European from Nişantaşı” and in Museum Sibel begins a sentence with “If we’re really European…” In his memoir Istanbul, Pamuk wrote movingly of his love for his city and confessed how he learned to appreciate the beauties of its buildings and vistas through the works of western artists such as Melling.

Pamuk has been accused of not being “centred” as a writer. He admitted that, growing up in Nişantaşı, he always felt like a “Westerner in the orient” and that it’s only by living and writing in the US that he’s now begun to “feel Turkish.” Perhaps, this early anxiety arises from Pamuk’s part-Circassian heritage whose labile and unstable loyalties and identities in west Asia Jean Genet described so vividly in The Prisoner of Love. However, by contrast, his brother şevket’s approach to similar issues seems to be anchored, mature and reasonable, free of this desperate need for acceptance by the west.

Of his early interest in painting like Utrillo, Pamuk observed in Istanbul that “I could paint only when I thought I was someone else.” Like Efruz Bey, a character in Turkish literature who pines for all things western, Pamuk wrote that in wanting to “become myself…it would not be by deriding Naipaul’s ‘mimic man’…but by identifying with him.” Like Auster, who often appears in his own books, readers have come across many Orhans in their process of becoming, most notably in Istanbul and now in Museum where he dons an oracular mantle. However, unlike Auster, who has an iterative formula for generating novels with finesse out of key story memes, Pamuk’s output has been varied and uneven in maturity, quality and execution.

The postmodern motif of the dissolution of the boundaries of individual identity through disappearances, mutations, impersonation and döppelgangers runs throughout Pamuk’s works, as it does in Kafka, Borges, Murakami and Auster. In Pamuk, conflation or multiplication of identities acquire a different, sometimes political, use and significance. The parallels between Celâl and Galip and the historical figures of Celâlettin Rumi, Shams of Tabriz and Sheik Galip in The Black Book (Kara Kitap), and Osman and Mehmet in The New Life make them fungible ciphers. However, the coincidences between the Turkish slave owner and his European vassal in The White Castle came about as Pamuk could not visualize any differences between them. As a result, he made them identical.

Pamuk makes a character in The Museum of Innocence say “Turks relish the taste of a modern Turkish product much more once they’ve seen Westerners enjoying it” but, although Museum seems to have been well-received, this has not been true of the reception of his own works in Turkey where he is still despised. Some Turkish critics have attributed his popularity in the west to combining experimental postmodern flourishes with bits of “Turkish exoticism” but there’s no denying his talent, good fortune and timing.

Heady notices by John Updike in The New Yorker and Jay Parini first brought him fame in the English-speaking world although the French had noticed him before that. His popularity grew from some accidents. According to a Turkish critic, his publisher İletişim launched a groundbreaking publicity campaign for The New Life in 1994, an unheard-of approach in Turkey at the time. Then the American edition of My Name Is Red went on sale the week of 9/11 and the novel TV campaign for Snow was capped by the heaviest snowfall in Istanbul in fifteen years. Istanbul contained details about his parents’ failing marriage and his rivalry with his brother şevket added some family frisson to the book. All these events fuelled sales, if not his popularity.

Turkish readers and critics have been baffled by the syntax in Pamuk’s previous works. They have gone so far as to accuse him of distorting his sentences in Turkish so that they would be easier to translate into English. Museum is up for the Three Percent translation prize. Maureen Howard noted in The New York Times that “Maureen Freely’s translation [of Museum] captures the novelist’s playful performance as well as his serious collusion with Kemal.” How far does this collusion go? Did Pamuk really write “lokum, or Turkish delight” in Turkish in Museum for his readers or is Freely, by annotating the text, underlining Pamuk’s role as soi-disant cultural broker to the west? Freely comes up with jarring locutions such as in Feridun’s screenplay “The Old Lady Who Sells Simits” or “dolmas” where the Engish plural –s remains unitalicized unlike the rest of the word.

Certainly, Pamuk has not been unaware of his mass markets. After some criticisms of the use of americanisms in The New Life, Pamuk asked the translator Güneli Gün, a Turkish-American novelist who teaches creative writing and women’s studies at Oberlin College in Ohio, to change her style in ways that would make it more acceptable to British readers. Her refusal led to Pamuk switching publishers and finding another translator.

Although Ataturk declared in 1933, after ten years of the republic, that Turkey was now “a European nation,” the EU’s reluctance to admit Turkey as a member continues to lead Turks into inner conflicts about history, nation and character. In 2009, Belgian politician Van Rompuy was elected head of the EU for his opposition to including a “Muslim” state in “Christian Europe.” The irony is that Turkey is a militantly secular country and the army has acted, using the constitution as the ground for intervention, to remove national governments that introduce Islam into the political realm. Pamuk has been an important interlocutor in this debate between east and west, albeit, it seems, a largely self-serving one and he has now retreated into silence.

Turkish nationalist Ömer Seyfettin (1884–1920) cast westernization as an upper-class movement removed from the people and Pamuk, above all other Turks, as part of that group has benefited most from accession politics. In the words of one critic, Pamuk has “been accused of exploiting religious and historical themes to please Western audiences.” His well-publicized lunch in his office with Olli Rehn, EU’s enlargement commissioner, and British MP Dennis McShane’s presence at his trial for “insulting Turkish identity” under article 301/1 of the new penal code incensed even moderate Turks. During Pamuk’s trial under article 159 of the old penal code, Rehn had intervened to warn the Turkish government to reform its legal code. Rehn said that the decision to acquit Pamuk was “good news for freedom of expression in Turkey.”

Pamuk could not have been unaware that admitting to the Armenian genocide was a condition for European Union (EU) accession. Pamuk alleged that “hardly anyone speaks about it” was mistranslated as “nobody except me speaks about it,” referring to the Armenian question, in the Peer Teuwsen interview. However, he clearly neglected to mention the sixty others who had been prosecuted on the same charges, including the journalist Hrant Dink who was assassinated by an ultranationalist. In an interview with Ángel Gurría-Quintana in The Paris Review, Pamuk excused his performances in interviews with the following “I sometimes feel nervous because I give stupid answers to certain pointless questions…I speak bad Turkish and utter stupid sentences.” He has said that he would not be commenting on politics in future interviews.

Turkish critics have noted that Pamuk has treated with contempt some famous Turkish writers who have taken Istanbul as their subject. Most notoriously, he referred to Yahya Kemal Beyatlı, who wrote Aziz İstanbul, a poem that has been set to music and is beloved by Istanbullus, as “the fat poet.” This anxiety to be accepted, when it is opportune, as Turkey’s sole voice in the west has a long and troubled history in Pamuk’s life and works and has shaped his complex politics of aesthetics. His creative works have been marked by this frottage with the frontiers of language, nation, religion and identity.

In a facile reading of Edward Said, Pamuk defended himself against the charge of exoticising Turkey to the west or of flattening its characters by asserting that Turkey was never a European colony. While this may be strictly true, it is an odd gambit given Turkey’s proximity to Europe, the history of European minorities in Turkey, the country’s roles in the Great Game and the two world wars and the consequences it faced, its representations in orientalist discourses from the days of George Sandys to the present, its hotly contested candidacy in the EU debate, and the persistent mistreatment of generations of Turkish workers and their families in Germany and many western European countries whose struggles Fatih Akin and other auteurs have depicted.

The opening of these frontiers has now occasioned a particular aesthetic expression and location in Pamuk’s works. According to şafak, Turkish “novelists are the ‘babas,’ the fathers of their readers. They are loved and hated, looked up to and looked down upon.” Although Pamuk has repeatedly denied himself this role, his latest venture has him playing a different, almost anthropological, part for the west. He includes a chapter entitled “A Few Unpalatable Anthropological Truths” where he pontifies on virginity and sexual desire.

The French thinker Jacques Rancière writing about 1960s art noted that one category of art was that of the archive: “the artist becomes a collector and archivist who in so doing, models her [sic] behaviour on practices of daily life and brings them together as art.” In Istanbul, Pamuk described his family apartment in Nişantaşı where he grew up as a “dark museum house,” full of bric-à-brac and cabinets that remained shut and in The Black Book Galip visits an underground mannequin museum. Pamuk negotiates through his imagination, rather than through his experience, “the blank space of the museum where the solitude and the passivity of the visitors confronts the solitude and the passivity of the artworks.” Pamuk had at times lamented the scarcity of museums in his city but they are used largely in his oeuvre as a strategy to hypostatize culture.

Pamuk, who is the Robert Yik-Fong Tam Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, in his fifth 2009 Charles Eliot Norton lecture entitled “Museums and Novels,” remarked that “the museum-like quality of novels is about preservation, conservation, and resistance to being forgotten.” In Museum, he noted that

Anyone remotely interested in the politics of civilizations 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 the museum depends, gathers together his first objects, he almost never asks himself what will be the ultimate fate of his hoard.

As simplistic and problematic as this formulation is, there are other considerations. Pamuk may have seized on his latest enterprise after the success of The Black Book when fans descended on Istanbul to retrace Galip’s routes through the city.

Often, art proceeds through appropriations but does not replace the reality it represents. Plato observed that artisans do not have the time to be outside their work, similar to şafak’s assertion that Pamuk is “more inspired by his own imagination than by his nation.” In Istanbul, Pamuk described his attempts to learn the argot of the streets and prisons from books but the writer’s task is not to preserve dead or past worlds in aspic. According to Nabokov, fiction was, through playful acts of imagination, interpretation and memory, “the creation of new worlds.”

While preserving the past may be a laudable enterprise and Proust, Joyce and Grass may have worked hard to re-create Paris, Dublin and Danzig, the results did not freeze history on the page. The novel as an artifact of culture is dynamic, syncretic, lived, experienced, and shared through participation, questioning and change; it is not flat, static, inert, dislocated or uncontested. Posterity for a work of art is assured by the authenticity of its creative imagination, not by simple preservation of historical memorabilia or ephemera.

Readers should be guided by Pamuk’s cautionary note in the novel that “some museums had the power to make me shudder.” The central conceit of the novel is deeply problematic and its few stylistic tics, such as the chapter where every sentence begins with “sometimes,” feel tiresome and contrived and do not redeem its major flaws in conception and execution. Despite Azar Nafisi’s literal interpretation of Lolita which Museum resembles, one of the more persuasive readings of the book is of Humbert as old Europe seduced by the young, new world. However, the affair of differences in Museum does not resolve with a sense of closure any of the book’s or the novelist’s preoccupations.

The major fault of this novel is the failure of heterogeneity, the failure to characterize the “other,” namely Füsun, Feridun and the Keskins, other than through chintzy china dogs and vacuous speech. Anadolu-Okur observed that “Pamuk also finds it irresistible to depict the mundane and the ‘stereotypical’ in the middle class attributes, or the so-called ‘blisses of the commonplace.’” Füsun and Feridun are given few lines of direct speech beyond the phatic and do not come alive as characters.

The author-function’s public role in the novel represents a narrow perspective that undercuts the effectiveness and impact of the novel. Unlike Flaubert who gave clear voice and subjectivity to his central character Emma Bovary, Pamuk does not create enough ironic distance from the subjects he satirizes. He does not even give them the space or fullness to breathe; he merely elides their subjectivity by playing the oracle.

As Rancière observed in writing about the politics of aesthetics:

Art is not political owing to the messages and feelings that it conveys on the state of social and political issues. Nor is it political owing to the way it represents social structures, conflicts or identities. It is political by virtue of the very distance that it takes with respect to those functions. It is political insofar as it frames not only works or monuments, but also…ways of being together or being apart, of being inside or outside, in front of or in the middle of…Politics precisely begins when they who have “no time” to do anything else than their work take that time that they have not in order to make themselves visible as sharing in a common world and prove that their mouth indeed emits common speech instead of merely voicing pleasure or pain…Politics consist in reconfigurating the partition of the sensible, in bringing on the stage new objects and subjects, in making visible that which was not visible, audible as speaking beings they who were merely heard as noisy animals.

It’s as if Pamuk, through his “inside” and “outside” activities, has arrived in a public space where he has positioned himself as part of the elite, overpowering others, as sole promoter, interpreter and curator of things Turkish. In The Writer in Politics, William H. Gass, no stranger to the idea of creating literature out of dross, wrote in mixed metaphors that “giving an author influence is like giving him poison. His pen begins to froth at the nib. He not only continues to manufacture baloney, he begins to eat it himself.”

While recent Nobel awards have gone to writers, such as Pinter and Naipaul, at the end of their creative trajectories, we hope that Pamuk’s public role which helped with his laureateship has not frozen his considerable gifts. One can only hope that he can free his imagination from his overriding insecurities and anxieties, that he will realize that he does not need to the play the oracle and make fatuous delphic pronouncements or sacrifice art for expediency any longer, that he will continue to encourage new Turkish voices to emerge and, above all, that he will progress on a path to produce maturer works that are worthier of his literary genius.

AHMAD SAIDULLAH is an awardwinning writer whose work has been published and anthologized widely. His Happiness and Other Disorders: Short Stories was published in 2008 in Canada and India to critical acclaim. The book was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed literary Award and longlisted for the Crossword Vodafone Book Award in 2009. It is being translated into French by the University of Ottawa Press. Ahmad lives in Toronto, Canada.