In 2009, I moved to Oxford to start an MPhil degree in modern Middle Eastern studies. I had chosen Turkey as my country of focus and Turkish as the language I would study. I have often been asked why I wanted to study Turkey, and have had plenty of time to fine-tune an answer. There are the usual factors—the rich history of the Ottoman Empire, the bizarreness of the Turkish republic’s quest for modernity, the nature of Islamic politics in the country, and Turkey’s increasing importance globally. There is also another reason, one I rarely mention because it almost seems frivolous to say that I read Orhan Pamuk’s books and they made me want to study about Turkey. But this is partly true.
Today, Pamuk does not have the same hold over me he once did. The stories of the city he writes about are now also partly mine to share and tell. As I learnt Turkish, I came to better understand criticisms of Pamuk’s writing style. I discovered other Turkish writers who have written about the same themes as Pamuk. Indeed, Pamuk has often drawn heavily on these works, a fact critics in Turkey always seize on. Yet Pamuk remains an emotional author for me, for his role in introducing me, as he has countless other non-Turkish speakers, to Turkish literature, and acting as an initial literary guide to Istanbul.
Pamuk’s standing as a literary ambassador for Turkey, and particularly Istanbul, is complex. It is in some ways a role that he has sought; in others, a weight that has been thrust upon him. But with his Museum of Innocence project, Pamuk has added another layer to his persona, as Istanbul’s memorialist-in-chief.
Pamuk conceived of his 2008 novel The Museum of Innocence and its eponymous museum together. In the recently translated catalogue of the actual museum, titled The Innocence of Objects, Pamuk writes about how the idea for such a project grew from his “wish to collect and exhibit the ‘real’ objects of a fictional story in a museum and write a novel based on these objects”. Set in the period from 1975 to the present day, The Museum of Innocence tells the story of the obsessive, doomed love of the protagonist Kemal Basmaci for his poor cousin Füsun Keskin. As Kemal’s love for Füsun grows more obsessive, he seeks solace in the everyday objects that remind him of her and their time together. These he uses to create a museum in tribute to his love and lover.
In the summer of 2010 in Istanbul, I moved, by chance, into a house in the Çukurcuma neighbourhood, a few doors away from the building Pamuk was converting into his museum. As I crossed the museum building to and from work, I often wondered what shape the museum would take. In truth, I was sceptical. By the time I finished The Museum of Innocence, I had reached the conclusion that this was the exceptional Pamuk book that I had come to hate. Pamuk’s protagonists are never particularly endearing, but the selfish awfulness of the protagonist crowded out any sense of enjoyment in reading his prose about the back streets of Beyoglu, life in the old wooden houses on the Bosphorus, the Turkish film industry or even the chaos of the 1980 coup. I was not sure I wanted to wallow in a museum that celebrated Kemal’s destructive obsessiveness.
Still, it was with curiosity that I visited the actual Museum of Innocence when it finally opened in April. Pamuk has insisted that though the book and museum are interrelated, each also stands on its own. Though the museum is centred on Kemal and Füsun, its 83 vitrines (that display the objects described in the book) wonderfully meld the book’s story with the broader history of Istanbul through the daily objects (cigarettes, ticket stubs, toothbrushes and items of food and drink, etc.) that characterized life in the city in its near past. By the time I was finished with the museum, I was charmed.
Pamuk had initially envisioned the book as a catalogue that described the museum but abandoned the idea and settled for a more classic book. Instead, once the museum was ready, he set about writing a separate catalogue in recognition of the museum’s individuality. The Innocence of Objects is a wonderfully mounted and illustrated book. It acts not just as an accompaniment to the museum. It also tells Pamuk’s story of how the idea of a book-museum came to be, his search for the museum building (“the house was part of my collection—its biggest, expensive, and most visible piece”), and the objects that illustrated the love story of Kemal and Füsun, and told the story of daily life in Istanbul from the 1950s to the 1980s.
For readers of Pamuk, the museum is an amalgamation of the author’s body of work and, in particular, a supplement to his memoir Istanbul: Memories And the City (it is perhaps another, more concrete way of preserving the Istanbul of his youth). Not only will the stories of these objects and the Istanbul they inhabited feel familiar (the project is rich in intertextuality; characters from other Pamuk works make frequent appearances) but even the concepts that the museum deals with—the very nature of museums, obsession, collection and memory—are all that Pamuk has explored in the past. This is true even in the recently translated Silent House, which was initially published in 1983. The house in the book is like a museum itself, filled with remnants of the past, standing in opposition to rapid change. One of the subplots focuses on a character’s doomed obsession with a distant cousin. Stealing her comb at one point, he imagines how “this thing I held in my hand had been in the deepest corners of the forests of Nilgün’s hair” (I could have been forgiven for thinking I had stumbled back into the story of Kemal, except that in the museum such acts of kleptomania have been elevated to a more sophisticated purpose).
Turkish author Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar once wrote about the novelist also playing the role of an encyclopaedist. It is in this vein that Pamuk conceived and started working towards both the museum and the book of the Museum of Innocence.
Istanbul today is changing more rapidly than ever before. The city is often described as a permanent construction site. If any last vestiges of the Istanbul that Pamuk writes about still exist, they are disappearing quickly. The Museum of Innocence, however, will continue to keep alive, in all its minutiae, Pamuk’s Istanbul. It is an ego project if there ever was one. If only more ego projects were like this.