October 2012

Arts & Letters

The novel lives

By Alexandra Coghlan
The Museum of Innocence, Istanbul. © Tolga Bozoglu/Corbis
Visiting Orhan Pamuk’s 'Museum of Innocence'

Stretching the three kilometres from the city’s funicular railway station to Taksim Square in party-central Beyolğu, İstiklal Avenue is Istanbul’s most famous street. It thrums with shoppers, tourists, processions and protest marches, the metallic clatter of the city insistent, unremitting. Left and right along its length run cobbled alleyways, their steep descents promising adventure just out of sight. Some 14,000 people have sought out one particular turn, finding the city’s promise fulfilled by a museum unlike any other: the Museum of Innocence.

The creation of Turkey’s Nobel Prize–winning novelist, Orhan Pamuk, the museum has taken some 15 years and US$1.5 million (coincidentally about the same sum as the author’s Nobel winnings) to bring to fruition, eventually opening its doors in April 2012 after years of delays. Although sharing its title with Pamuk’s 2008 novel, the narrow, red-painted townhouse isn’t the site of some literary theme park. The collection it holds was conceived of alongside the book, and assembled by the author himself.

Pamuk’s novel follows Kemal, a wealthy young man in mid-1970s Istanbul who falls obsessively in love with a beautiful shopgirl, Füsun, a distant relation. Their relationship ultimately thwarted, he spends the ensuing decades consoling himself by pilfering objects belonging to his beloved. Anything she has ever touched becomes charged with significance, a potential ‘exhibit’ in the museum he eventually builds – 83 boxes (representing the novel’s 83 chapters), which serve collectively as narrator, witness, shrine and mausoleum to his love. It is these objects that can be found in the museum itself. Some of the exhibits even pre-date their textual doubles, anchoring their elusive fiction in material fact.

One Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish writer, also makes an appearance in the novel, persuaded by Kemal to write his story. As you walk up to the top floor of the actual museum, Kemal’s collection gives way to Pamuk’s own: cabinets display the empty pen-ink cartridges used to write the book, as well as the author’s sketches and rough notes. A chair even stands empty, expectant, next to Kemal’s bed in the little attic – Pamuk’s absent form perpetually sitting and listening to the tale.

With the literary scene’s current taste for ‘faction’, in which memoir moves ever further from autobiography and history towards fiction, it was only a matter of time before someone perfected this sleight of hand. It could easily have been Michael Ondaatje or JM Coetzee (or even Laurence Sterne, if we stretch the point), but it was Pamuk who hauled the literary bars apart and set up shop within. To some it may seem cynical, an exercise in postmodern wit, but as you stand among the teaspoons, salt shakers and hairclips of the museum, it’s hard not to find yourself bewitched. What sounds like navel-gazing instead reaches outwards, speaking not only to the history of an under-documented nation (Istanbul, tellingly, has no city museum), but also to the personal histories of each of its visitors.

“Istanbul is a city that is very unfaithful to its past,” explains curator Esra Aysun. “It’s a city that houses the history of three empires but always looks to the future. People throw away old objects, always wanting the newest thing, so the museum is like a safety-deposit box, a treasure box where you can find the lost history of Istanbul. For many of our visitors it’s a very personal, very emotional encounter.”

Shame, according to two decades of Pamuk’s fiction, is the dominant emotion of Turkey. “While the West takes pride in itself,” he writes in The Museum of Innocence, “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.” Kemal and Füsun’s love story might occupy the foreground of the book, but its backdrop is a portrait of Turkey’s identity crisis, a nation caught in the Cold War crossfire, aspiring to the freedom and modernity of the West while anchored by the social restraints and ancient morality of the East. Here, the Western idea of a museum – a space presenting public, comprehensive, objective truths – is translated: intimacy rather than respectfulness is the prevailing sensibility, where universal truths and histories grow out of personal moments and discarded objects.

And so we find ourselves confronting Chapter 68 – 4213 Samsun cigarette stubs smoked by Füsun between 1978 and 1984. Suspended like butterfly larvae in a lepidopterist’s display case, each stub is meticulously dated and labelled with a place or moment of memory. Some are stained with lipstick, coffee or Füsun’s favourite sour cherry ice-cream – J Alfred Prufrock’s coffee spoons given new and persuasive life.

Although Eliot’s poetic antihero doubts the value of his daily banalities, of the lived personal moment, the victory of Pamuk’s museum is one of emphatic conviction. A single key or door handle means little, but suspended in a display case by the hundred, each held in a hovering relationship to its neighbours, they acquire a resonant, allusive power. The museum hauntingly amplifies the novel’s main themes of lack and loss. Here is a cup of coffee, half finished, but where is the drinker? We find one lost earring but not its match, a floral summer dress but no one to wear it.

This sense of the incomplete is mirrored in the living process of the museum itself. “I fully intend to work on it for the rest of my life,” Pamuk declared in a recent Newsweek article, and it’s this unfinished quality that preserves the project from seeming smug. A few of the 83 display cases have velvet curtains drawn over them. These represent Pamuk’s works in progress – the object-pictures he is as yet unsure of, or wishes to revisit.

Museum visitors leave wanting to contribute, to insert their own histories and donate objects to sit among the author’s. Legal issues prevent the museum from accepting so much as a teaspoon, however. The objects on show are either Pamuk’s own, specially constructed for the project (the novel’s iconic Meltem soda, for example), or were discovered by the author in Istanbul’s vintage shops.

In researching the book, Pamuk not only gathered a study full of objects but visited hundreds of museums, just like his protagonist. Kemal’s quixotic project grows out of Pamuk’s own, is indivisible from it, and visitors have persistently questioned to what extent the author is in fact Kemal. It’s an issue Pamuk treats with visible impatience in interviews, but a natural consequence of and conclusion to his task. In forcing us to look again at the objects that surround us, Pamuk deliberately blurs what Ondaatje recently described as “the fine line between fiction, fact and imagination”. Where does this museum end? Can we really step back out onto the cobbled street and not see Füsun’s saltcellar on the table of a cafe, not seek out her brand of cigarettes at the tobacconist’s? Isn’t Pamuk inviting us to transform Istanbul itself into a museum, casting ourselves along with the author as its subjects?

The question of how we should each visit Pamuk’s museum is only slightly less fluid than why. Pamuk himself has spoken of the peculiar “consolation” that objects offer, and in a new museum catalogue, The Innocence of Objects (published this month and classified interestingly as nonfiction), he explores the motivations of hoarders, collectors and museum-goers alike, teaching us how to ‘read’ his collection even as he continues to write it.

Turn to the final chapter of a copy of The Museum of Innocence and you’ll find a printed ticket admitting the reader to the museum. While some may prefer to leave fiction on the page, for those who make the journey down Çukurcuma Street, cabinets of literary curiosities await. In this narrow house filled with the debris of civilisation, a quince grinder becomes a revolution, a pill bottle death, and a single earring is a perfect moment of happiness.

Alexandra Coghlan

Alexandra Coghlan is the classical music critic for the New Statesman. She has written on the arts for the Guardian and Prospect.

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