It is sometimes forgotten—or at least insufficiently acknowledged—that novels are set not just in a place, but also in time. In fact, much of the power of novels as persuasive representations of life comes from their ability to dramatize the passing of time. Time, then, is always implicitly one of the themes of a novel; it is one of the presiding gods of the novelistic universe. As soon as a writer begins a story with the phrase “In those days...”, we settle down into a story; or when we hear the narrator say, as he does in Orhan Pamuk’s new novel, that “So it seems all these years later, but at the time...”, we become conscious of a self looking at a past version of itself and the world in which it was immersed, and the shape of the story begins to emerge.
The Museum of Innocence: Faber & Faber, 536 pages, £12.99 (around Rs1,000).
Since time is so important to the novel, it follows that novels are often principally about memory; they enshrine memory in words, and are often told in flashback. The passing of a beautiful time, and the desire to capture that time in any way possible, is the central theme of Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence, which records one man’s attempt to build a museum—a real place that serves as a resurrection of a different time—to love.
When we first meet Kemal Basmaci, the young business scion who is the protagonist of Pamuk’s novel, he is a month away from getting engaged to a beautiful and accomplished woman from his own class and station. One day, popping into a store to buy a handbag for his fiancee, Kemal comes across Fusun, a beautiful teenaged shop-girl who happens to be a distant cousin, and whom he last met when she was a child. Sparks fly, and the two are soon deeply involved. Kemal cannot understand what is happening to him, especially since life has already given him everything that he had apparently wanted, but he knows that he cannot bring himself to give up Fusun. Pamuk’s unabashedly sensual novel tracks, in the greatest and most pleasurable detail, the peaks and troughs of Kemal’s days as he attempts to balance his public life of duties and appearances with his secret life with Fusun, and indeed with himself.
Pamuk’s great talent as a novelist has always been his ability to be an ambitious writer without being a difficult one. Just as his great novel My Name is Red took on a spiralling, kaleidoscopic quality from the device of using multiple narrators who passed control of the story around the way a salt-shaker is passed about at the dining table, so The Museum of Innocence takes on a special interest and depth from the writer’s use of the idea of a museum to record every mood and memory and object (earrings, dresses, maps, glasses, cigarette packets) of a great love affair. Like one of his novelistic mentors, the French writer Stendhal, Pamuk loves to ask searching questions about the nature of love and of happiness. Kemal argues that the happiest moment of one’s life can only be fixed retrospectively, and never in the moment that one is actually living it, and both exults in and suffers the miraculous sweetnesses and lacerating torments exerted by time on a person in love.
One great three-page chapter describes in minute detail the agony of waiting for someone who does not arrive at the appointed hour and probably will not come, while the book’s longest chapter, an exquisite 40-page set piece, describes the festivities of Kemal’s engagement ceremony in a manner that recalls the ornate ballroom sequence that appears at the close of Luchino Visconti’s film The Leopard. Very rarely has a novelist in his 50s written so convincingly of the energy and ardour of youth, shuttling smoothly between moments of seriousness and mischief (among the guests at Kemal’s engagement in the year 1975 is the 23-year-old Orhan Pamuk, “nothing special about him beyond his propensity to act nervous and impatient”). Istanbul is very densely and lovingly evoked, but above all this is a book about time. Pamuk builds a museum of innocence twice over: the first of objects, and the second in words.
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf.
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