Book Group Report: The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

Translated by Maureen Freely

Following on from last month’s book, The Museum of Broken Promises by Elizabeth Buchan, we picked another book with ‘Museum’ in the title following our Word Association method. This is the novel Pamuk wrote after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, and he went big! Oh blimey! What a whopper we managed to pick, at 536 pages in hardback, 752 in paperback – yet strangely perhaps, most of us managed to read the whole thing. That’s one positive thing to say about it – it read well, the translation by Maureen Freely flowed seamlessly, (she also translated Snow, which we read many years ago at book group). It showed cultural attitudes and Turkey’s class structure during the period of the book which is from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s which was fascinating, a culture in which more permissive Western attitudes were beginning to be adopted by the middle and upper classes (there are always double standards!), but sex before marriage was still frowned upon if not followed through by a wedding.

The story is one of obsessive love – found – lost – found – lost – commemorated. It’s 1975 and Kemal is a rich young man of about thirty, he sort of runs one of his father’s factories and is engaged to Sibel, from another wealthy family. Both educated in the west, Kemal has persuaded Sibel to have sex in his office. The big engagement party is being planned, Sibel’s family sparing nothing to impress. So far, so normal, huh?

Then everything changes, but not all at once. Kemal meets Füsun, a beautiful shopgirl, in a handbag shop buying a gift for Sibel. For Kemal it is lust at first sight. Füsun is just 18 and a distant cousin of his from a much poorer family. When he discovers the handbag is a fake, Kemal sees the opportunity to develop a relationship with her, inviting her to an empty appartment owned by his mother to do the refund, and he offers to give her lessons to help her pass her exams to go to college. But, he soon takes her virginity and she becomes his mistress. Kemal’s father had had a mistress on the side and an ostensibly happy marriage and Kemal thinks he can have his cake and eat it too.

It’s not to be though, for his lust, (I never saw it as love), for Füsun develops into an obsession which will follow him for years and years, lose him Sibel, all his friends and his job. Füsun sees his obsession and plays him for a while. She wants to be an actress more than anything, and she gets Kemal to invest in her boyfriend, later husband’s, film production company to further that aim. All the while, Kemal’s obsession is getting worse, becoming a mental illness and he becomes a hoarder of things belonging to Füsun, from every cigarette butt she smoked in the apartment, to the china cat that sits on her TV which he purloins.

I could go on, but I was so irritated by Kemal in so many ways. Firstly, his Lolita-like conquest of Füsun in claiming her virginity and his total arrogance, not to forget his shaming of Sibel. Thankfully, this was something she would overcome later. Reading all 536 pages of his obsessive love for Füsun (I had the hardback) was an endurance test. I could have done with 200 pages fewer, but as one of our group pointed out, the length of the novel really does demonstrate the degree of obsession.

Towards the end, the novel also takes an abrupt volte face in change of focus, as the author introduces himself as a character talking to Kemal about his foundation of ‘The Museum of Innocence’ – another contrived museum (see last month’s book group post). This meta change didn’t sit so well we thought. Amazingly, Pamuk actually founded said museum in Istanbul as a companion piece to the novel (see here), and if you go there with a copy of the book, the ticket printed on one of the latter pages of the novel will give you free admission and be stamped. The book and the museum were devised in tandem, but if you were unaware of the latter, like me, initially the museum in the book will seem very contrived. There is a map at the beginning of the book, showing its location – with no explanation – and at book group I exclaimed, “he’s even included a map for the fictional museum”, before being corrected by a member who had done more research!

Although easy to read, this novel is a challenge for a monthly book group due to its length, however, we did get a long discussion out of it. I’m not sure that any of us would rush to read more by Pamuk though. Having got a hardback, I’m not sure I’d cart it to Istanbul should I ever visit either, it’s a brick at 800g.

Source: Own copy. Faber paperback, 752 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

11 thoughts on “Book Group Report: The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      As I remember, I wasn’t a fan of Snow either, but that was before I started keeping records. We usually try to keep our picks manageable in reading time, but this one slipped through!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I do slightly begrudge the extra time needed to read a chunkster that doesn’t quite make it for me, but as you say it has its good moments.

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