Museum of Innocence

Published : Sep 30, 2015 12:00 IST

Orhan Pamuk at his Museum of Innocence.

Orhan Pamuk at his Museum of Innocence.

Straddling the broad Bosphorus Strait, Istanbul is an exciting city that lures visitors with its historical attractions, friendly people and vibrant cultural energy. While it is not the capital of Turkey, it is definitely the country’s uber city and the main driver of its economy. Dividing and uniting Asia and Europe simultaneously, the city encapsulates the historically troubled synthesis between the Occident and the Orient. Observant visitors will discern the city’s mild struggle with its special identity, which leaves it a little lost in the process.

It is also an ancient metropolis whose political importance and cosmopolitanism were established well through its Byzantine and Ottoman history. In its modern history, it is the site where secular nationalists, Islamists and assorted leftist groups waged struggles, sometimes violent, as they tried to figure out what it means to be Turkish. Although its inhabitants are mainly Muslim, Istanbul is remarkably different from other cities in the “Islamicate” sphere, and its unique nature can be traced to Turkey’s intensely secular Constitution, a bequeathal of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), whose ideological legacy still hangs like a fog over the country.

Some of the most prominent sites in Istanbul include the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, the Suleymaniye Mosque, the Hagia Sophia museum and the sprawling Topkapi Palace. Considering the enchanting beauty of the city, it is not surprising that tourists abound, and many of them congregate around Taksim Square, the most prominent public space of Istanbul, in the evenings for the many shopping and eating options it offers. It is laid around the impressive-looking Monument of the Republic, a memorial of Turkish national identity that commemorates the Turkish War of Independence.

Around half a kilometre from Taksim Square, the crowds begin to thin out as quiet and winding streets come into view. On descending a small hill here, one enters the area of Cukurcuma (pronounced Chukurjuma). In one of its lanes, in a nondescript building, is a special museum that complements the heartbreaking love story immortalised in Orhan Pamuk’s magnificent novel The Museum of Innocence . The book was published in 2008, while the museum opened in 2012. In the Nobel laureate’s impressive oeuvre of writing (that includes My Name is Red , the much more popular mildly philosophical murder mystery set in 16th century Constantinople), this Istanbul-based tale stands out for the simplicity of its theme and the exquisite saga of love it narrates.

The novel tells the love story of Kemal Basmaci and his distant relative, a girl named Fusun Keskin. It is written in the first person from Kemal’s perspective, and the chunk of the tale is spread over roughly a decade beginning in 1975. At the beginning of the book, we learn that Kemal, the scion of one of the leading families of Istanbul’s elite Westernised society, is about to marry Sibel, but an encounter with Fusun leads to a passionate love affair that lasts for 44 days and changes his life forever. In one of those inexplicable events that destroy lives, Kemal goes ahead with his engagement with Sibel anyway, thus losing Fusun.

As Kemal eventually comes around to the realisation that his life is deeply dissatisfying without Fusun, he is indifferent to the ending of his engagement. Fusun, has, in the meanwhile, married and seemingly moved on. Kemal’s fetish for collecting objects, which continues relentlessly for the next few decades, begins here as he mopes in the apartment where he had consummated his love for Fusun. At this point, there begins a strange courtship as Kemal ingratiates himself with Fusun’s family and gradually becomes a member of the household. It is a mysterious courtship that thrives on glances and words unsaid. This surreal act of wooing, which plods on at a snail’s pace, lasts for an agonising nine years.

It is painful to read the tale as the reader is privy to Kemal’s mad and unrequited love that manifests itself in manic, but harmless, kleptomania. Wide varieties of miscellaneous items go missing from the Fusun household and cumulatively form part of the clutter that is eventually given extraordinary meaning when incorporated in the real entity called the Museum of Innocence.

Things reach breaking point when Fusun’s father dies and the knot that had kept the household in its farcical but complacent existence unravels. Fusun, divorced now, looks forward to marrying Kemal, but destiny ensures that the love story has a cruel and traumatic end when Fusun dies in a horrible accident a day after Kemal and she make love again after more than nine years. It is tempting to imagine that the book is based on real characters, and Pamuk tantalisingly encourages this confusion in many ways: towards the end of the book, for instance, he literally inserts himself as a character in the tale. He is someone whom Kemal confides in so that the tale can be written down. The confusion about whether the events of the book may be real will persist and deepen when one visits the museum after reading the book.

Arranged as they are to faithfully follow the narrative order of the book, the artefacts in the display cases seem like real accompaniments to the story. The illusion is so thorough and complete that the visitor almost expects Kemal, soaked as he is with raki (a Turkish alcoholic drink) on most nights, to descend from the attic in his pyjamas declaiming his love for Fusun. This illusion and the consistent confusion that is created in the mind of the reader and the visitor simultaneously are a brilliant achievement on Pamuk’s part. It is as if he has, through the museum, opened another, much more sensory aspect of Kemal and Fusun’s love story. Alas, the novel is a work of fiction and the museum is the accompanying imaginarium.

Curatorial achievement A museum primarily converts time into space. It consolidates nostalgia, memories, an era or an epoch and distant feelings and presents them tangibly in a finite space. It seeks to rein in the vastness of one’s imagination and centres it on visible objects. Pamuk’s museum is a curatorial achievement because it fulfils two purposes simultaneously: First, it complements the book. The museum and the novel have a strange relationship. While both can be experienced independently, they are also mutually dependent on each other. Second, the museum, using the fictional lives of Kemal and Fusun, records the daily lives of Istanbul’s social elite during the period of the novel with a diligence that exceeds that of any cultural anthropologist. It is representative of a lost time. About the bond between the museum and the novel, Pamuk states: “There is, of course, a strong bond that holds the novel and the museum together: both are products of my imagination, dreamed up word by word, object by object, and picture by picture over a long period of time. This is perhaps also why the novel and the museum each tell a story. The objects exhibited in the museum are described in the novel. Still, words are one thing, objects another. The images that words generate in our minds are one thing; the memory of an old object used once upon a time is another. But imagination and memory have a strong affinity, and this is the basis of the affinity between the novel and the museum” ( The Innocence of Objects , 2012).

The objects displayed in the museum are eclectic and reflect Pamuk’s omnivorous collection over two decades. The items are spread over four floors, and each one has been carefully chosen and is steeped in sentimentality and uses the fictional garb of Kemal and Fusun’s story to resuscitate moments from the era of Pamuk’s youth. The largest panel displayed, for instance, consists of 4,213 Samsun (a Turkish brand) cigarette butts. In the story, these are the cigarette butts Kemal carefully recovered over a period of eight years once Fusun had discarded them.

In his curatorial note, Pamuk states: “All anthropologists agree that in any city such as Istanbul where everyone always smokes, where people are always offering one another cigarettes and lighting them up, the linked actions of holding and lighting a cigarette, flicking the ash off its end, and stubbing it out all form a particular sign language.”

Similar curatorial comments, lasting from 100 seconds to 120 s (in the form of an audio guide), accompany each of the 73 displays. Display case no. 4 consists of identity cards of employees who were supposed to have worked in Kemal’s firm, Satsat. Further down, display box no. 9 contains bottles of Turkey’s first fruit soda, Meltem. In the novel, Kemal’s friend Zaim is the manufacturer of Meltem. In his curatorial comment here, Pamuk states: “Before big multinational companies came to dominate global markets, local firms in non-Western countries were sometimes inspired to produce fruit-based drinks, colas and sodas of their own, revealing a desire to be national and traditional as well as, ironically, a longing for the trappings of ‘modern’ life.” Case no. 58 contains a variety of decorative knick-knacks that would be casually strewn around homes. Here, Pamuk comments: “The power of things inheres in the memories they gather up inside them, and also in the vicissitudes of our imagination, and our memory.” Similarly, the remaining cases contain ceramic dogs, shaving brushes, combs, shoes, driving licences, clocks, keys, lamps, smoking pipes, Turkish tea glasses, old typewriters, movie ticket stubs, restaurant bills, a raki bottle, cuttings from newspapers and other equally mundane accoutrements of daily life. There are also paintings Pamuk commissioned. Pamuk is firmly rooted in Istanbul, and all his literary works constantly reference the cultural tension between the East and the West. This, perhaps, reflects the inherent tension of living in Istanbul itself as is alluded to earlier.

In The Museum of Innocence , for instance, Pamuk discusses the notions of virginity through the premarital sexual liaisons of Fusun and Sibel and writes how people in Istanbul felt that such women were trying to ape “modernised Western” women. Regular references to gentle cultural clashes manifest themselves in all of Pamuk’s works consistently.

Museums, like all other institutions, have for long conformed to an overwhelming occidental discourse. Historians have established how colonial authorities set up museums in their colonies to order and present a certain version of the past. Pamuk’s museum is perhaps making an attempt to break out of that mould of a Western discourse on museums. It is certainly not the first but it is a brave and bold attempt nonetheless that achieves its purpose beautifully.

So when Pamuk lays out a 10-point manifesto for museums, one must take him seriously. In point number four, for example, he states: “Demonstrating the wealth of Chinese, Indian, Mexican, Iranian, or Turkish history and culture is not an issue—it must be done, of course, but it is not difficult to do. The real challenge is to use museums to tell, with the same brilliance, depth, and power, the stories of individual human beings living in these countries.”

When Pamuk envisions museums, he does not see grand edifices that narrate national histories but smaller, gentler buildings that tell stories of individuals, and this is what his magnificent museum has achieved.

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