The Museum of Innocence

I completed my preparations for coming to Turkey by reading Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence. Because I left it too late to start, as usual, and because I’m damned if I’ll haul a 700-page novel across three continents and back again just for the last few chapters, I had a strict regime of just over 150 pages a day, every day, in order to be finished in time.

It wasn’t a bad way of approaching it, actually, because the less constrained reader – like an under-trained long-distance runner – can suffer when hitting the wall of boredom. Pamuk always tells a captivating story – in this case a love story, mostly unrequited, that spreads over twenty years, during which the characters change and grow while around them Istanbul does too – but sometimes he’s all Proust, no pace. The narrator Kemal plays a patient and almost selfless game; throwing off his own place in society, he’s waiting for the love of his life, his second cousin Fusun, to leave her husband. In the meantime Kemal visits them, endlessly visits them, and carries away small objects she has touched – a cigarette butt, a saltshaker she used – and collects them for his own consolation, like a medieval pilgrim venerating the relics of a saint.

The novel builds Kemal’s longing with such exquisite slowness that sometimes it can feel like you’re in the room with them, night after night, knowing you should leave but not finding the strength to stand, slowly stirring your tea or examining the wallpaper while from outside, drifting up Cukurcuma Avenue, come the late-night sounds of someone stumbling home from a meyhane, the breeze stirring the linden trees, the low distant thrum of a passing ship’s generator in the black glittering Bosphorus.

It’s very specific writing – he specifies the address of her house, lovingly describes the objects through which they silently articulate the slow drama of their lives – and if you don’t willingly submit yourself to occasional boredom, if you’re too keen for a quick fix of something more like entertainment and less like life, you’ll drop off the book like a jogger rediscovering the sensual joys of stopping, which is what I did the first few times I tried. But, like life, if you use the boredom well you realise that sometimes boredom is part of the point, that something good and beautiful was happening while you were bored, something deep was being dug.

And so I arrived in Istanbul this week with a head like a vitrine stuffed full with Kemal and Fusun’s devastatingly sad and happy story that carries with not an understanding but – far more important – an experience of what it was to live in this city through the middle-late years of the 20th century as it continued its long wrestle with its own identity.

I arrived here from Germany shortly after the bombings in Istanbul and Ankara and the attack at Dolmebahce Palace, with world currencies sliding and European countries building fences against waves of migrants, but all those big stories spoke less precisely to me than the love Kemal had for Fusun, walking these streets, seeing these views, hearing that cry of that muezzin rolling across the green waters of the Golden Horn.

On a narrow winding alley just down from Istiklal Caddesi on the steep hill toward Karakoy, Orhan Pamuk used the proceeds of his Nobel Prize to build The Museum of Innocence, in the very house at the very address he specified for Fusun’s home in the text. If you present your book at the door, and haven’t stupidly finished it in advance and left it at home – you can enter free, accept an audio guide and make your way through the beautiful arrangements of recreated artefacts from the novel: 4000 cigarette butts that Fusun smoked, pinned like butterflies to a wall; the heartbreaking cheap yellow belt she wore; a menu filched from a faux-French restaurant where Kemal confessed to his fiancé; a clip of Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief, her elbow resting on the car door, the way Fusun liked to copy her.

It’s an astonishing place. Pamuk fabricated some artefacts and sourced others from attics and vintage shops and people’s memories, creating a biography of a time and a world, rich and poor, through the prism of two small lives, lovingly excavated and imagined. On the ground floor is Pamuk’s manifesto for museums: he mistrusts the big museums that provide a nationalist narrative of a country or a culture. He believes that the big narratives of history, even the restorative counter-narratives, don’t and can’t tell the true stories of the people caught up in them, not the victims, not the villains, not those millions who consider themselves neither. He believes that the stories of individuals are better suited than the big stories of history to display what he calls the depths of our humanity. I think it’s my small manifesto too.

The Times, 26 August 2015