Orhan Pamuk’s ‘The Museum of Innocence‘ examines in minutest detail the obsessive love of Kemal Bey for his beautiful distant cousin, Fusun. The love story which spans a number of years, almost all of Kemal Bey’s adult life also recreates the Istanbul of the 70s and the 80s, a traditional society struggling to be modern.
Developing Turkey seems much like developing India during that time. Pamuk uses mundane objects, everything from salt shakers to movie ticket stubs, from china dogs to cigarette butts, to evoke love, melancholy, the state of a country, its people. The book itself becomes a museum, displaying meals, clothes, faces, music, dances, television programs, films, traffic, curfews, fights, riots, affairs, engagements and marriages. Destiny takes its unregarded turns with a fake designer handbag, a lost earring, a canary in a cage.
Years pass by as Kemal waits to win back his love. Seasons, history and the changing times reflect themselves in the architecture of the city, some traditional, some crumbling remnants of the Ottoman empire, the new which takes its place, the old neighborhoods, old mansions given over to films shoots. The Bosphorus winds its way through the narrative. The ships and boats on it call out with their horns and the boatmen’s calls.
It’s interesting to see how the course of love and life are determined not only by the established customs of the day, but also by the very attitudes that one is feigning to adopt in the name of modernity. Attitudes towards women, pre-marital sex, love and fidelity, honor and respectability dictate the actions of Kemal Bey and his male friends. The women, Fusun included, need to make their way through the contradictions between proclaimed fashion and underlying conservatism.
I read the book on my one day visit to Delhi, on the flights back and forth, at the airport, at the CEC hostel room, alone and adrift, away from home. The book seemed to mirror the melancholy I’ve been feeling this year. There is so much that doesn’t seem to go my way, but like Kemal Bey, I find solace in the mundane. A sadness wells up inside me as I realize how much we all wait, how long, for some dream, that seems forever within our grasp, and yet elusive.
Kemal Bey insists at the end, I have been happy. I think I have been too. Though it doesn’t always seem that way at the time.