Wanting to Be Something Else

Museum.cgiAdam Shatz reviews Orhan Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence in the LRB:

The Museum of Innocence is, apart from anything else, a wry, perceptive novel of manners about the Turkish bourgeoisie. Pamuk grew up among these people in Nisantasi, the neighbourhood where much of the action takes place, and he describes its inhabitants with anthropological precision, as they shop for handbags, go on trips to Paris and nose around each other’s business. They fancy themselves free and modern, but they mostly adhere to the patriarchal codes that govern their incestuous world, if only for fear of exposure and disgrace, lacking – as Pamuk has written of his own family – ‘the courage to make the final break’. Men, in this world, are the romantics; the women know better. As Kemal’s mother warns him, ‘In a country where men and women can’t be together socially, where they can’t see each other or have a conversation, there’s no such thing as love … Don’t deceive yourself.’

But Pamuk is as much a romantic as an ironist, and curiously indulgent of Kemal, whose ruminations on love, desire and loss run on for pages. Like most of Pamuk’s heroes, he’s so neurotically aware of the life he isn’t leading that he has scarcely any life at all, taking refuge in memories of an idyllic past that will remain forever out of reach. Füsun, another of Pamuk’s beautiful, fickle, inscrutable heroines, makes only the faintest impression: she is not so much a woman as an object of beguilement, a promesse de bonheur, a fantasy that Pamuk seems to share with Kemal. Kemal’s dreamy soft-core flashbacks – ‘As our kisses grew ever longer, a honeyed pool of warm saliva gathered in the great cave that was our mouths combined, sometimes leaking a little down our chins, while before our eyes the sort of dreamscape that is the preserve of childish hope began to take form’ – are, of course, a symptom of his self-absorption, his childish attachment to the museum of innocence that nostalgia fashions from the past. Yet Pamuk seems to embrace this nostalgia: he turns up late in the novel to offer his own breathless memories of dancing with Füsun at Kemal’s disastrous engagement party to Sibel. (Pamuk appears in almost all his novels, sometimes as the narrator, sometimes under cheeky pseudonyms such as ‘Orphan Panic’, and occasionally as the anonymous writer of Pamukian novels.) And Füsun bears a resemblance to other significant women in Pamuk, such as the girl he describes in the memoir Istanbul, who sat for him when he was an aspiring painter (‘my sad and beautiful model’, ‘my almond-scented love’); like Füsun, she is a stand-in, an aide-mémoire for the loss of youth, even for Istanbul itself, a city where, in Pamuk’s depiction, happiness is always a thing of the past.

The memoir is a book about the city and a book about Pamuk: they share a fate, and that is to be melancholy.