Review: The Museum of innocence by Orhan Pamuk
Far from a Turkish delight
Published 16/01/2010 | 05:00
Any time a Nobel laureate releases a new book, it's a biggie. And in the case of Orhan Pamuk's latest, The Museum of Innocence, that applies literally as well as figuratively. Weighing in at over 530 pages, the book even carries an index at the end -- virtually unheard of in any work of fiction not written by JRR Tolkien -- such is the multitude of characters that people its vast, sprawling narrative. Forget giving your brain a workout, this monster is enough to exercise the biceps, too.
I jest, of course, but the sheer size of The Museum of Innocence is daunting when you first crack open the cover. So is the scale of the story itself: beginning in 1975 and progressing to today, it chronicles the obsessive love of Kemal, scion of one of Istanbul's wealthiest families, for Fusun, a shop-girl 12 years his junior (and a distant relative) with whom he has a brief romance.
Despite the fact that she eventually marries another man, Kemal remains infatuated with Fusun, besotted, driven half-crazy by this distorted love and moving nicely towards full craziness.
He begins to collect little bits of memorabilia, things she might have touched, mementoes of their time together. In gathering these odd artefacts of a dead relationship, Kemal fetishises Fusun, their affair and its aftermath, and reveals himself as a strange, unappealing and dysfunctional little man, which, to be honest, is a major problem for any novel.
The hero, the central character, has to hold it all together, especially something this large and expansive; he has to be someone you're willing to spend a lot of time with. But Kemal, while nowhere near evil or wicked, is the kind of guy you'd duck to avoid at a party: whining, self-absorbed, melodramatic and somehow childish. In fact, the whole book left me a bit cold, which was disappointing: Pamuk is one of the most lauded figures in modern literature, with that aforementioned Nobel Prize, the IMPAC Prize and reams of appreciative critical reviews.
He has been a brave and progressive writer, too, both in terms of artistic expression and fighting the good fight politically: Pamuk was charged with 'insulting Turkishness' in 2005 for drawing attention to the mass killing of Armenians and Kurds under the Ottoman empire.
I wanted to love this novel therefore, and it's not without its charms: mainly the evocation of Turkish life, both at the top stratum of society and lower down, which is excellently done and gives a rich flavour of this exotic, other-worldly country.
For many of us Turkey is just a land of hot sun and dry land and religious upheaval; The Museum of Innocence illustrates another side to it, a progressive, modern land of television and offices and smart suits, of people like us with similar desires and needs and failings. (Kudos, also, to the translation work of Maureen Freely.)
But it's dull and uninteresting in parts, and grindingly slow-moving in others; most problematically, it's overwritten by a significant degree, not in the sense that the language is too stylised or opulent, but in the sheer length of the work.
To be a vulgarian and reduce it all to maths, the story being told doesn't warrant a book of this size. The biggest failing, though, is the disastrously ill-conceived appearance of the author in the book's last few pages.
Pamuk, as they say, breaks the fourth wall by introducing himself as the writer of this other person's story.
What are we meant to infer from this? That Kemal was real? That this is a memoir, not a fiction? That we should now re-appraise all that we've read in light of this new development?
I don't know. And having waded through so many uninspiring pages by that point, I didn't really care.
Darragh McManus is an author and journalist. His book GAA Confidential is available from bookshops and online
(Faber and Faber, €23.45)