domingo, 15 de mayo de 2011

The Museum Of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

The Museum Of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk presents what might appear to be a daunting challenge. It runs to more than 500 pages and a flick through the text reveals scant use of dialogue. It all looks very dense. There is also the added challenge of knowing that the novel is set in an unfamiliar cultural landscape, underpinned by assumptions we may not share, assumptions that we may not even recognise.

But no reader need be daunted. I read it – and even re-read some sections – in less than two days. Rarely have I been drawn by a writer inside a character in the way that Orhan Pamuk invited me to become Kemal Bey. The book is a perfect example of a work that tells you nothing, but takes you all the way there.

Kemal is a rich young man at the start of the book’s recollected but largely linear story. It is 1975. Kemal has returned from business school in the USA and has taken up a perhaps assured position in Satsat, literally Sell-Sell, his family’s distribution and export company. It’s a successful company, making money hand over fist, and provides its owners with both status and wealth. Kemal is part of Istanbul’s, even Turkey’s elite, a rich man even among the rich. He can have what he wants. His life is on a flat track in the fast lane from the start. He is close to engagement and marriage to Sibel, a beautiful woman he loves.

And then one day Kemal visits a shop to buy his girlfriend a present. He recognises the girl who serves him as the daughter of a distant relation, a woman he used to call Aunt Nesibe. There was no direct blood tie, perhaps, but ties with this poorer branch of the family were stronger when Kemal was young. Hence he remembers the shop girl who serves him as Füsun, Aunt Nesibe’s daughter. She is just 18, has bleached hair in the modern style and promises an imminent and full bloom of womanhood. Kemal is transfixed and from that moment on his life is changed.

The Museum Of Innocence – at least in part – is a novel about obsession. Kemal wants to possess, to own every aspect of Füsun. He yearns for her body – that might be taken for granted – but he also wants to absorb her, in some ways to become part of her. For him she is a Madonna, a sex object, a future wife, an analyst, a support and a superstar all in one slight, beautiful frame. He changes every aspect of his life so that it fits the shape she projects merely so that he can metaphorically and literally wrap himself around her. In one of their encounters, she loses a monogrammed earring. Kemal finds it, but doesn’t return it. And so this earring becomes the first of many things associated with Füsun that Kemal collects. Eventually these thousands of artefacts become the exhibits in his museum dedicated to her, Kemal’s museum of innocence.

But Orham Pamuk’s writing is never merely one-layered. In The Museum of Innocence he takes us on a tour of Istanbul’s high society and culture. We experience – not just observe – clashes of culture, tradition versus modernity, family versus individuality, responsibility versus interest. Events that made Turkish history of the period affect everyone’s lives. Political and economic change go hand in hand, though sometimes the hands are fists.

We meet Zaim, for instance, whose company makes Meltem, Turkey’s favourite domestically-made soft drink. But as the years pass, can his brand compete with Coke and Pepsi? And if so, what tactic should it employ to find its market? Should it use Western advertising methods? Kemal also meets Feridun, a budding film director who, via various mechanisms eventually persuades Kemal to finance a film company as a joint venture. Lemon Film’s first offering is hammered by the urban critics, but poor communities throughout Anatolia can identify with its traditional message and so it becomes a capitalist hit. Kemal has success is almost every aspect of his life but not, it seems, in love, a subject he confines to his museum. He becomes, incidentally, a compulsive museum visitor!

A review of The Museum Of Innocence cannot begin to offer a flavour of the entire book. Its canvas is too broad, its achievement too great, its success too complete. Obsession is the key word, however, and Orhan Pamuk manages to draw the willing reader into Kemal’s psyche, so that his tunnel vision becomes an obsession for the reader. We see his world through his eyes, and thus feel what he feels. Perhaps we even empathise. Looking back, The Museum Of Innocence, like life itself, is not such a long journey after all.

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