I found Orhan Pamuk's The museum of innocence surprisingly endearing. Surprising because it's a book that I didn't initially particularly enjoy. In fact I thought it was quite creepy; and then I realised that it's one of those amazing books that appears to be about one thing, but ultimately is about something rather different. And as I got deeper into the book it grabbed me and refused to let go.

Kemal, a wealthy businessman from an upper-middle-class liberal Istanbul family is about to become engaged to Sibel, who's from a similar background. Both are successful, and have a large circle of friends. Then one day Kemal's life changes when he buys a handbag for Sibel, and meets his young distant cousin, Fusun. Fusun has a bit of a reputation in 1970's Istanbul. She has been daring enough to enter a beauty contest, and that combined with her lower class has branded her as being morally questionable among the men of Istanbul. Kemal ends up embarking on an affair with her. But what starts out as being primarily (on his part at least) about sex, changes following Kemal's engagement to Sibel when Fusun and her family disappear.

Some years later after the engagement has broken up Kemal finds Fusun again, but to his dismay she is now married. Determined to try and re-ignite the sparks of the relationship Kemal starts to visit Fusun and her family regularly. Unable to have Fusun, Kemal steals small items from her parents home as reminders both of the woman he loves, and the family that he loves being with. Eventually it looks as though the lovers will be reunited, but in life nothing is that simple....

What I hated about the book initially was that Kemal seemed really creepy. His obsessive love seemed to have more to do with justifying being a stalker, than about any kind of genuine love. But then, I realized what the book was really about. It wasn't just Kemal's love for Fusun, it was his love for the city of Istanbul, its people, and the ordinary families that live within it.

It's a book about the joys of the simple things in life, not just the grand amour, but the joys of in-jokes between families and friends, doing simple things together - eating and watching TV. The little things that bond relationships. The everyday objects that we use that are such an integral part of everyone's life. And all these things coming together are ultimately more important than the big affair or the military coup, or the huge changes within countries, the little things are the glue that cements communities together; and makes life continue as normal even in the most difficult circumstances. The chapter "Sometimes" which was just a litany of the little things in life nearly reduced me to tears. It was a beautiful example of simplicity in writing, and so touching.

It's a big read, and one that you sometimes think could have been edited down. But what would you cut? The closer you look at the novel, the less you can imagine any part of it excised. Most of the characters except for Kemal himself are not particularly well rounded. Even Fusun is a rather nebulous figure; and yet it doesn't seem to matter. What does matter is Kemal's final plea that his life, which had become stagnated by a tragic love story, was actually a happy one. And you genuinely believe that this is true. Beautiful writing; a complete treat to read. A novel that makes you think about what really is important in life.

The museum of innocence is one of the few (perhaps the only) book that has had a museum set up to celebrate it. The "real" Museum of innocence was set up in Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk in 2007. Remember to take along your copy if you're ever in Istanbul as you'll get free entry.


Aarti said…
I have My Name is Red by Pamuk, but have not read it yet. It gets such mixed reviews I am unsure of whether I would like it or not. I guess there's only one way to tell!

Love this review - I can see why you were so conflicted at the beginning. A creepy protagonist is hard to spend so much time with!
Book-hound said…
Funnily enough My Name is Red is the next Pamuk I'm thinking of reading as the period setting appealed to me. I'd definitely give it a go. I couldn't find that many reviews for Museum of Innocence, which seemed a little strange. I did wonder if it might have been that the first half of the book was so off-putting that reviewers gave up! It's worth ploughing on though.

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