Synopses & Reviews
“It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn’t know it.” So begins the new novel, his first since winning the Nobel Prize, from the universally acclaimed author of Snow
and My Name Is Red.
It is 1975, a perfect spring in Istanbul. Kemal, scion of one of the city’s wealthiest families, is about to become engaged to Sibel, daughter of another prominent family, when he encounters Füsun, a beautiful shopgirl and a distant relation. Once the long-lost cousins violate the code of virginity, a rift begins to open between Kemal and the world of the Westernized Istanbul bourgeosie—a world, as he lovingly describes it, with opulent parties and clubs, society gossip, restaurant rituals, picnics, and mansions on the Bosphorus, infused with the melancholy of decay—until finally he breaks off his engagement to Sibel. But his resolve comes too late. For eight years Kemal will find excuses to visit another Istanbul, that of the impoverished backstreets where Füsun, her heart now hardened, lives with her parents, and where Kemal discovers the consolations of middle-class life at a dinner table in front of the television. His obsessive love will also take him to the demimonde of Istanbul film circles (where he promises to make Füsun a star), a scene of seedy bars, run-down cheap hotels, and small men with big dreams doomed to bitter failure. In his feckless pursuit, Kemal becomes a compulsive collector of objects that chronicle his lovelorn progress and his afflicted heart’s reactions: anger and impatience, remorse and humiliation, deluded hopes of recovery, and daydreams that transform Istanbul into a cityscape of signs and specters of his beloved, from whom now he can extract only meaningful glances and stolen kisses in cars, movie houses, and shadowy corners of parks. A last change to realize his dream will come to an awful end before Kemal discovers that all he finally can possess, certainly and eternally, is the museum he has created of his collection, this map of a society’s manners and mores, and of one man’s broken heart.
A stirring exploration of the nature of romantic attachment and of the mysterious allure of collecting, The Museum of Innocence also plumbs the depths of an Istanbul half Western and half traditional—its emergent modernity, its vast cultural history. This is Orhan Pamuk’s greatest achievement.
"Nobel laureate Pamuk's latest is a soaring, detailed and laborious mausoleum of love. During Istanbul's tumultuous 1970s, Kemal Bey, 30-year-old son of an upper-class family, walks readers through a lengthy catalogue of trivial objects, which, though seeming mundane, hold memories of his life's most intimate, irretrievable moments. The main focus of Kemal's peculiar collection of earrings, ticket stubs and drinking glasses is beloved Fsun, his onetime paramour and longtime unrequited love. An 18-year-old virginal beauty, modest shopgirl and 'poor distant relation,' Fsun enters Kemal's successful life just as he is engaged to Sibel, a 'very special, very charming, very lovely girl.' Though levelheaded Sibel provides Kemal compassionate relief from their social strata's rising tensions, it is the fleeting moments with fiery, childlike Fsun that grant conflicted Kemal his 'deepest peace.' The poignant truth behind Kemal's obsession is that his 'museum' provides a closeness with Fsun he'll never regain. Though its incantatory middle suffers from too many indistinguishable quotidian encounters, this is a masterful work." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
From the universally acclaimed author of Snow
and My Name Is Red,
his first novel since winning the Nobel Prize.
It is 1975 in Istanbul. Kemal, thirty, from an upperclass family, is engaged to a girl of like background when by chance he encounters a long-lost relation: Füsun is a shopgirl, an eighteen-year-old beauty who stirs all the passion denied him in a society where sex outside marriage is taboo. Their incandescent liaison will flicker and die when Füsun learns of Kemals engagement. But Kemal cannot forget her: he breaks up with his fiancée to pursue Füsun, only to lose her to another man.
For nine years Kemal finds excuses to visit Füsuns impoverished, conservative marital household, playing the kindly cousin, hoping to lure her back. But Füsuns heart is hardened. From his visits Kemal will take away nothing but odd personal effects, possessions he will collect and cherish, in the private religion his adoration becomes. His hoard will make him famousand a laughingstockin Istanbul society. And when a final chance at happiness is ripped away, all that remains to him is his museum, this map of a societys rituals and mores, and of one mans broken heart.
A stirring exploration of the nature of romantic attachment and the strange allure of collecting, this is Orhan Pamuks greatest achievement.
About the Author
An enchanting tale of romantic obsession and shifting cultural mores, The Museum of Innocence, Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk’s seventh novel, follows the well-stationed Kemal and his lifelong quest to possess the beautiful shopgirl Füsun. Sacrificing everything his family and friends deem valuable, Kemal honors his love through transports of the imagination and an ever-growing collection of mementos. With his planned exhibition, Kemal wants “the world to take pride in the lives they live” (p. 518). Yet under Pamuk’s skilled direction, The Museum of Innocence also becomes, as Maureen Howard wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “the writer’s claim to his workroom, where the gallery of his dreams displays not ephemera devoted to delusion but close attention to the ‘beauty of ordinary life.’”
Reading Group Guide
1. How do modern European culture and Turkish tradition affect the attitudes and actions of the novel’s characters? Are the tensions between both societies reconciled or accommodated?
2. On page 37, Kemal states that his parents were not religious yet they retained many religious customs and traditions. What role does religion play in the novel? In Pico Iyer’s laudatory review in The New York Review of Books, he writes that “As in [Pamuk’s memoir] Istanbul, though even more so, memory becomes a kind of religion, and there is a sense, following Proust, that les vrais paradis sont les paradis qu'on a perdus” (true paradise is the paradise one has lost). What do you think Iyer means? Do you agree with Marcel Proust?
3. What does Chapter 15, “A Few Unpalatable Anthropological Truths,” reveal about sexuality in modern Turkey? How are those “truths” reflected elsewhere in the novel? How might your own cultural assumptions about gender and sexuality influence your views on the behavior of Sibel, Füsun or Kemal?
4. At one point, Kemal reflects on his relationship to Füsun: “Did the pleasure of satisfying evergreen desire give birth to love, or was this sentiment born of, and nurtured by, other things as well?” (p. 54). How might you answer that?
5. Consider the following statements by Kemal: “In fact no one recognizes the happiest moment of their lives as they are living it” (p. 72) and “Now, all these years later, I think that the best way to preserve happiness may be not to recognize it for what it is” (p. 98). Are these two statements contradictory? Do you agree with either?
6. On page 157, Kemal tells of “the astonishing powers of consolation that objects held,” and, on page 73, says that “mementos preserve the colors, textures, images, and delights as they were more faithfully, in fact, than can those who accompanied us through those moments.” How are these notions expressed throughout the novel? Do you share Kemal’s beliefs regarding objects and mementos?
7. What do you think Kemal means when he states, on page 102, that “the gap between compassion and surrender is love’s darkest, deepest region”? What is that “gap”? How are the concepts of the “gap” and “the cleft between the felt and the imagined” (p. 347) represented in the novel?
8. On page 113, Berrin tells Kemal that a “girl with brains doesn’t judge a man by the way he thinks. She looks at his family, at the way he deports himself.” What does this comment reveal about Berrin and his class? Where else is this idea reflected in the novel?
9. How are political events within Turkey from the 1970s and 1980s integrated into the novel? Do the characters address the political turmoil surrounding them? In his portrayal of the characters’ relation to current events, what might Pamuk be saying about them and their society?
10. On page 176, Pamuk writes, “Sibel, with the felicitous intuition so prevalent in the bourgeoisies of non-Western countries, and most particularly Muslim countries, saw psychoanalysis as a ‘scientific sharing of confidences’ invented for Westerners unaccustomed to the curative traditions of family solidarity and shared secrets.” What do you think of that quote? How might it explain Sibel or other characters’ behavior?
11. Is the change of Füsun’s hair color from blond to black significant? How might these two representations of Füsun symbolize the tendencies and paradoxes of modern Turkey?
12. On page 219, Sibel says: “The art of love is in finding a balance of equals . . . If you ask me, being cultured and civilized is not about everyone being free and equal; it’s about everyone being refined enough to act as if they were. Then no one has to feel guilty.” What do you think she means? Do you agree? How might Sibel’s definition of “equal” compare with your own?
13. On page 302, Kemal realizes “that the longing for art, like the longing for love, is a malady that blinds us, and makes us forget the things we already know, obscuring reality.” How is Pamuk’s writing of The Museum of Innocence both a reflection and realization of that belief? Consider Chapter 52, “A Film About Life and Agony Should Be Sincere,” and Füsun’s later interest in painting birds. How might Pamuk’s depiction of film and the visual arts function as metaphors for the characters’ shifting circumstances and inner lives?
14. Review Chapter 54, “Time,” and Chapter 62, “To Help Pass the Time,” in the context of the rest of the story. How would you describe the novel’s notion of time? Is it realistic? Metaphoric? Philosophic? Did the book make you think differently about time?
15. In 2005, Pamuk spoke to the Swiss press about the Turkish killings of Kurds and Armenians, for which he was subsequently charged by Turkey with “insulting national character.” Although the charges were later dropped, how might Chapter 59, “Getting Past the Censors,” be both a satire and a commentary on Pamuk’s experience with Turkish authorities?
16. Consider the following statement by Kemal: “In those days I’d ceased to think of my life as something I lived in wakeful consciousness of what I was doing: I’d begun instead to think of it as something imagined, something—just like love—that issued from my dreams, and as I had no wish either to fight my growing pessimism about the world or to surrender myself to it unconditionally, I acted as if no such thoughts had entered my mind” (p. 420). What does Kemal’s admission reveal about him? About his relationship to Füsun? How are Kemal’s concepts of the “real” and the “imaginary” reflected thematically and stylistically throughout the novel?
17. In Chapter 82, “Collectors,” Pamuk playfully explores the social and psychological contexts of collecting. Why might there be a sense of shame attached to collecting? How do you distinguish between a collector and a hoarder? Do you collect anything? If so, what do you think drives your passion?
18. In the novel’s final chapter, “Happiness,” Kemal says: “With my museum I want to teach not just the Turkish people but all the people of the world to take pride in the lives they live. I’ve traveled all over, and I’ve seen it with my own eyes: While the West takes pride in itself, most of the rest of the world lives in shame. But if the objects that bring us shame are displayed in a museum, they are immediately transformed into possessions in which to take pride” (p. 518). How do you interpret this passage? Does The Museum of Innocence accomplish Kemal’s goal? What do shame and pride have to do with a museum?
19. How do you understand Kemal’s claim that “As visitors admire the objects and honor the memory of Füsun and Kemal, with due reverence, they will understand that . . . this is not simply a story of lovers, but of the entire realm, that is, of Istanbul” (p. 524)? How might this assertion be true?
20. To what do you think the “innocence” of the title refers? Considering page 124 and the final chapter, “Happiness,” how do Orhan and Kemal’s perceptions of Füsun compare? Does your perception of Füsun differ from theirs? What do you think of Kemal’s final words of the novel?
“[An] enchanting new novel of first love painfully sustained over a lifetime....The city is on exhibit: the romantic touch of decaying wooden houses, the sturdy apartments of the nouveaux riches, postcard views of the shimmering Golden Horn, Soviet tankers on the Bosporus and a Frenchified restaurant once in favor....Part of the delight in The Museum of Innocence
is in scouting out the serious games, yet giving oneself over to the charms of Pamuk’s storytelling….Freely’s translation captures the novelist’s playful performance as well as his serious collusion with Kemal. Her melding of tones follows Pamuk’s agility, to redirect our vision to the gravity of his tale....What’s on show in this museum is the responsibility to write free and modern.”
- Maureen Howard, New York Times Book Review
“A Startling original. Every turn in the story seems fresh, disquieting, utterly unexpected...spellbindingly told....The genius of Pamuk’s novel is that although it can be read as a simpel romance, it is a richly complicated work with subtle and intricate layers. Kemal’s descent into love’s hell takes him through every level of the social order, past countless neighborhoods of sprawling Istanbul, in a story that spans 30 years.”
- Marie Arana, The Washington Post
“Pamuk...is that rare thing, a creator of sophisticated, intensely literary fiction, who is also his country’s bestselling writer....in part...because of his work’s accessibility and his willingness to adapt conventionally popular genres, like historical and detective stories, into multilayered, character-driven novels....mesmerizing, brilliantly realized...[with] marvelous and transporting evocations of Istanbul…and fascinating insights into a society living very much on the unstable borders of contemporary life between the Islamic and Western worlds....[This] engrossing tale....deeply and compellingly explores the interplay between erotic obsession and sentimentality—and never once slips into the sentimental. There is a master at work in this book.”
- Timothy Rutten, The Los Angeles Times
“Pamuk looks at Europe’s great tradition with a fascination and devotion that few contemporary Europeans would muster…and in doing so, he catches instantly his own—along with his country’s and much of the developing world’s—uneasy position between the indigenous ways they are determined to hold on to and the globalized world they long to belong to. The Museum of Innocence may be Pamuk’s most intimate and nuanced exploration of these stresses yet....Pamuk unfolds a classic, spacious love story a little like a Nabakovian version of Love in the Time of Cholera [and] The Museum of Innocence develops, therefore, into something of a rich and almost-modern Age of Innocence, translated to a confused world that doesn’t know quite how modern it wants to be....[N]o one has given us so unsparing and precise a sense of mock-sophisticated Istanbul society, and no writer has immersed us so passionately in a backward-looking monochrome depiction of Istanbul in its neglected traditional corners....[Pamuk] has given voice to nearly every society in the world torn between the longing to be global and to be itself....[Here he] manages to tell a very straightforward story of a dreamer in love—rendered lucid and fluent and human in Maureen Freely’s translation—that is, beneath its romantic surface, strikingly exact.”
- Pico Iyer, New York Review of Books
“While this is a broadly familiar tale, it is also, in so many ways, a stunningly original work…granular and panoramic, satirical and yet grounded in reality. This is a twisted love story, engrossing and sensual in its own right. But Pamuk being Pamuk, it is so much more than that. There is something casually anthropological about Pamuk’s writing. He manages to make a story with stern lessons about class conflicts and…the Eastern versus Western divide, feel both light and weighty. Pamuk is a puckish storyteller…who crafts scenes worthy of the cinema. Vignettes large and small feel vivid….Great writers have made the failed love stories of desperate, self-involved men pulsate. A master, like Pamuk, makes the story feel vital.”
Henry C. Jackson (Associated Press Writer), San Francisco Chronicle
“Pamuk’s sensual, sinister tale is a brilliant panorama of Turkey’s conflicted national identity—and a lacerating critique of a social elite that styles itself after the West but fails to embrace its core freedoms.”
“a world-class lesson in heartbreak and happiness....Pamuk’s own presence in this wily narrative is as surreptitious as passion itself.”
- O Magazine
“pulses with the hopeful melancholy of an aching heart.”
- Entertainment Weekly
“Curious and demanding….The author examines Kemal’s twisted devotion with impressive cunning and inventiveness; inevitably, we think of Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert and his Lolita, but to Pamuk’s credit, the comparison does not diminish this novel’s eloquence or impact. Suggestions of a tradition-bound haute bourgeoisie unable to let go of passing traditions and values feel honestly earned, and the narrative consistently engages and surprises....Another richly women tale suffused with life and color from one of contemporary fiction’s true master craftsmen.”
- Kirkus (starred review)
“a soaring, detailed...mausoleum of love....a masterful work.”
- Publisher’s Weekly