Oct/Nov 2012 Nonfiction

Remembrance of Things Past: a Visit to Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence

by Alisa Sniderman

On April 28, 2012, The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk opened the much anticipated Museum of Innocence based on his 2008 novel of the same name—the only museum in the world to be dedicated to a single novel. Drawing inspiration from objects that he found in Istanbul's flea markets, Pamuk envisioned the novel and museum together as a unique aesthetic experience. This forethought is discernible in the book's design (every copy includes a Singles Admissions Ticket to the real-life museum and a map for finding your way to it) as well as in the novel's plot. The novel centers on an obsessive collector, Kemal, who erects a museum of objects that remind him of his beloved. He calls this impressive albeit somewhat creepy art project the Museum of Innocence. In lieu of a run-of-the-mill catalogue, Kemal decides that a novel would be a more compelling guide to his collection. And so he solicits the help of no one other than Orhan Pamuk. The mischievous blurring of fact and fiction might first sound like a stale, postmodernist trick, but a closer look at Pamuk's project reveals it to be a fiercely intelligent and moving meditation on the relationship between art and life.

Pamuk originally planned to open his museum at the time of the novel's publication, but because of various delays, the novel came first along with early reviews that speculated about the mysterious, unfinished museum. The most consistent and predictable criticism was Platonic in pitch: that the Museum of Innocence with its solid walls and tangible objects would either feel redundant or rob readers of the wonders of their imagination.

Novel in hand and feeling like a literary character in Pamuk's novel, I followed the map and walked from the hustle and bustle of Taksim toward the Çukurcuma distric, where the protagonist's love interest "lives" and where the museum is located. The only precedents of mixing museum with literature that I can remember are two short stories, one by Julio Cortázar and another by Vladimir Nabokov, where a visit to a local, innocent-looking museum turns into a freaky trip. In both versions, an unsuspecting visitor meets the weird and the uncanny, stage-managed by the mischievous and somewhat sadistic author. Your humble and suspicious reader was ready for the writer's game. Bring it.

Walking in Çukurcuma, I didn't have to wait long for my itinerary to go awry. Despite its local color, Çukurcuma is uncannily familiar. I felt I was back in Brooklyn, except that all the brownstones had been transformed into bright, crumbling, Byzantine palazzos. Used bookstores display Turkish copies of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Benjamin, Sontag, old issues of Cahiers du cinema, and Pamuk's novels. Quirky, indie coffee shops serve organic fare and exhibit local art on their white walls, as though straight from an episode of Portlandia. In Çukurcuma, young folks stroll in and out of galleries wearing infinity scarves, messenger or tote bags (depending on the size of their Macbook), oversized headphones, and oversized prescription-less glasses. Welcome to global hipsterville.

The artsy neighborhood still retains patches of urban roughness with its hanging clothes lines, debilitated and abandoned houses, construction sites, and friendly stray dogs and cats. It should come as no surprise, then, that Çukurcuma's bohemian ambience has become fertile ground for the mushrooming of shops with English words like flea, vintage, or antique in their names. The area is a treasure island for the professional and amateur collector. Sleek galleries neighbor holes-in-the-walls that sell tattered trunks, broken chairs, oil lamps, crooked lampshades, '50s tube TV sets, rusty keys, hand-me-downs, and creepy dirty dolls. It's often impossible to tell where the junk ends and the antiques begin and whether a given object is honestly unique or if it has been fabricated to look secondhand, like those grandma brooches at Urban Outfitters.

One of the most famous shops (the word institution might be more appropriate here), The Works: Objects of Desire, proudly announces above its entrance—"Supplier to the Museum of Innocence" and "1961 Heinkel Tourist Scooter for Sale." It has its own website (www.fleaworks.com), Facebook group, and tag line: "For the slightly deranged collector seeking identifiable memories…"

Most shops expertly put together displays that summon tenderness for objects on sale. Exhibit A is an old bicycle from someone's childhood leaning against a wall, covered with a frayed, faded carpet, and with a sad doll sitting on top of it, as though straight from Toy Story. Exhibit B is a rusty awning for Hey Bros Ice Cream. And is that a velveteen rabbit peeping from inside a cracked flower pot to pull your heartstrings? Nostalgia for sale works by inspiring you to adopt these forsaken objects and give them a home along with all the adorable stray kittens nestling in the shops' corners.

In their marketing strategy, the vintage shops ape the glass boxes of the Museum of Innocence that display objects associated with each chapter of the novel. These vitrines, which follow the novel's chronology, also rely on the image to evoke emotion, although obviously not for lucrative purposes. This arrangement of objects is one of the many directions that Kemal gives to the character Orhan Pamuk. Another is that no more than 50 visitors can be present at a given time. Most of these guidelines are followed in the actual museum. My favorite is that "kissing couples should be left to their own devices" and that the Museum of Innocence should "be forever open to lovers who can't find another place to kiss in Istanbul." In the actual museum, kissing your lover is indeed allowed, even encouraged by the film installation of retro kissing scenes. Both Pamuk and Nabokov (a writer openly admired by Pamuk) hint in their respective autobiographies that they enjoyed more than just kissing—their first romantic trysts—in empty, little-visited galleries. The twin-size bed on the last floor, however, is not the bed where the novel's lovers make love. Apparently, this is a popular question among visitors.

Fighting the temptations of a souvenir shopaholic, I turned my eyes and ears away from the siren shops of Çukurcuma and flipped to the first chapter of The Museum of Innocence to feign reading while walking—an activity which largely involves rereading the first few sentences that jump at you.

"It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn't know it." This is the short and simple sentence that I kept rereading on my way. This is also a sentence that Pamuk diligently worked on at the New York Public Library on March 18, 2002, as he realized that it would become the opening of his new novel. (The last floor of the Museum of Innocence houses chapter drafts and other information about the novel's creation.) Simple though it may be, the virtuoso sentence flows like a delicate and complex perfume, releasing different notes. In just a few words, Pamuk creates a complex bouquet of feeling: a fleeting whiff of happiness, a bittersweet memory of that happiness, a sting of regret, and finally a deep note lasting longer than the rest—melancholy warmth emanating from the words of the narrator:

It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn't know it. Had I known, had I cherished the gift, would everything have turned out differently? Yes, if I had recognized this instance of perfect happiness, I would have held it fast and never let it slip away.

The novel begins with the happiest moment of Kemal's life. The precise instant takes place on a late May afternoon of 1975 when Kemal makes love to his inamorata, who in the throes of passion loses an earring. This butterfly shaped earring is encased in Box One of the Museum of Innocence, titled, "The Happiest Moment of My Life." (A copy of the earring is also available for purchase at the Museum Shop.) Although the novel begins on this crest of ecstasy and tenderness, the story flows both backward and forward in time, covering the last 50 years of 20th-century Istanbul.

The central story is a clichéd one. A 30-year-old wealthy playboy Kemal is engaged to a woman of his class but finds himself attracted to a younger, beautiful but poor woman named Füsun. Kemal's original plan involves "partaking of all the pleasures of a happy home life with a beautiful, sensible, well-educated woman, and at the same time enjoying the pleasures of an alluring and wild young girl." When Füsun finally leaves him, Kemal is devastated. For the next eight years, in his quest to win her back, Kemal becomes a compulsive collector and occasional thief of her everyday objects: her clothes, combs, saltshakers, clocks, restaurant menus, old Istanbul photographs, shared childhood toys, and 4,213 cigarette butts. One of the first pieces on display at the entrance of the Museum of Innocence is an impressive installation of these cigarette butts. No lungs were harmed in the making, however. Each cigarette butt was first freed from tobacco and then artistically fashioned to appear smoked and savored.

The stunning collection aside, Kemal's story sounds unbearably banal. Indeed, when Kemal shares his experience with his pals, he has a hard time making it compelling. No wonder he seeks the help of a writer who can take a moth-eaten subject and spin a perceptive and poignant tale. Pamuk's achievement lies in his virtuoso plotting and the connections that he draws between plot and the ways that we, temporal beings, make sense of time, however erroneous and self-delusional these ways might be. Or simply put, the artistic project of The Museum of Innocence explores our lasting love for the novel and our insatiable desire for narrative.

The sad predicament of humans is that they must live and love in Time. Beginning the novel with the happiest moment is thus a poignant choice because, as the narrator explains, "no one recognizes the happiest moment of their lives as they are living it." Even though we may believe that we're living a moment of joy as it is happening to us, we also believe at least in one part of our hearts in "the certainty of a happier moment to come." But with time, as we weigh our burdens and losses, memories of an irretrievable happiness might haunt us as they do Kemal:

But when we reach the point when our lives take on their final shape, as in a novel, we can identify our happiest moment, selecting it in retrospect, as I am doing now. To explain why we have chosen this moment over all others, it is also natural and necessary, to retell our stories from the beginning, just as in a novel. But to designate this as my happiest moment is to acknowledge that it is far in the past, that it will never return and that awareness, therefore, of that very moment is painful. We can bear the pain only by possessing something that belongs to that instant. These memories preserve the colors, textures, images, and delights as they were more faithfully, in fact, than can those who accompanied us through those moments.

In search of a palliative for his pain, Pamuk's protagonist expresses the naive side of our love of novels—the belief that somehow, somewhere the mess that we call life—our joys and woes, thanks and regrets, mistakes made and risks not taken—are not lost but can be classified, arranged into patterns, made meaningful. In his Norton Lectures, titled The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist, Pamuk explored Friedrich Schiller's famous distinction between "naive" poets—who write serenely, spontaneously, unselfconsciously—and "sentimental" poets—those who are questioning, reflective, and aware of the artifice of the written word. For Pamuk, what lies at the center of the novelist's craft is the very oscillation, a certain attempt at equilibrium, between the naive and the reflective. A similar distinction exists between the naive and the sentimental reader in each of us.

In a lecture at Bilgi University, Pamuk admitted that he knowingly played upon a certain irresistible ambiguity between life and fiction that leaves the naive reader curious to know more: "Did this really happen to the novelist? How much of this is true?" It is a delicious, guilty pleasure of reading fiction that Pamuk knows we all indulge in no matter how much we might deny it and no matter how much literary theory we might have read. During the Norton Lectures at Harvard, a very prominent literary critic blatantly asked Orhan Pamuk in front of a packed audience whether Pamuk was Kemal and whether the beautiful woman who was often seen walking with him in Cambridge was Füsun. The woman in question was the talented novelist Kiran Desai.

If Kemal's overarching narrative seduces the naive reader in us, then the sentimental reader will no doubt reflect and appreciate another truth that The Museum of Innocence unveils—that, however masterfully plotted, the best novels intimate that life is more chaotic and immeasurably more complex than any representations of it. After all, Kemal's museum chronicles much more than his own love and loss. Although unaware of it, Kemal becomes a ragpicker, to borrow a term from Walter Benjamin. The ragpicker goes through the refuse of all that the modern city has lost, shunned, and broken to catalogue it and save it from utter oblivion. In his obsessive and selfish quest, Kemal scavenges Füsun's trash. Most of the objects that Kemal hoards are on the verge of extinction, but he salvages them because they still abound in then-impoverished, not-yet-modernized Çukurcuma.

Likewise, the real-life Museum of Innocence is much more than an illustration to a fictional story, as it records Istanbul's bygone manners and mores. It is the only museum in Istanbul to showcase its history from the last 50 years of the 20th-century, and thus might be enjoyable to even those visitors who have not read the novel. Not every object however was found at the flea market. Some are complete fictions of Pamuk's imagination later commissioned to artists. Jenny Colon's bag and "Meltem Soda" ("Turkey's first fruit soda") are pure fictions. So is the German model for the Meltem Soda ad campaign, though in the museum you'll find her mischievously smiling in a fake TV commercial. Neither of these counterfeit labels is available at the Museum Shop.

To fully relish the aesthetic experience of the museum, you'll need to have read the novel. For all his flaws, Kemal is on to something when he muses: "After all, isn't the purpose of the novel, or of a museum, for that matter, to relate our memories with such sincerity as to transform individual happiness into a happiness all can share?" What I felt walking through the Museum of Innocence was unquestionably a kind of happiness, a happiness that I'm aware of when it happens to me, a detached happiness that does not cloud my judgment, but sharpens my senses to be alert to every detail. Nabokov liked to call this a-little-aloof feeling an "indescribable tingle of the spine... a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm."

This aesthetic pleasure doesn't lie in finding mere illustrations to the objects described in the novel. I read the novel a while ago and wasn't sure if I'd recognize any of the objects. Indeed, Pamuk once pondered the curious fact that in a couple of years after reading a novel we retain at most five pages from it, but what happens to the other five hundred? They don't just vanish. Each vitrine of the museum evokes episodes from the novel. A kind of involuntary memory of the novel is the only way of describing the enchanting experience, or maybe a madeleine on steroids. The knife in Box 11, "The Feast of the Sacrifice," conjures up images of the cobblestone streets of Istanbul drenched in blood and the enlarged pupils of an impressionable child. The drawing of a canine cosmonaut in Box 34 brings back memories of Kemal's despair, but also of a brilliant turn of phrase—"like a dog in outer space." Kemal wonders how lonely the space dog Laika must have felt when the Soviets sent her into the unknown cosmos, the first living creature to visit the dark infinity and the first to die during the flight.

Although Pamuk calls himself a "failed painter," he also considers himself a visual writer in the tradition of Tolstoy, Proust, Nabokov, and other painterly writers who appeal to our visual imagination by using words to evoke pictures. Some of these pictures are so compelling that they stay with us as warm afterimages long after we've closed the book: Anna Karenina's velvet black dress; Gilberte's freckles like pink hawthorns and eyes so black they are remembered as blue; Dolly Haze's russet curls, gray eyes, and sooty eye lashes; Füsun's yellow pumps, Kemal's yellow mug, and a canary named Lemon. Each of these afterimages, when remembered, unleashes its delicate bouquet of sentiments. With his Museum of Innocence, Pamuk enlarges our mental inventory of such images, at least the ones associated with his own novel. Even if we can only voluntarily remember five pages from The Museum of Innocence, we are able to be reminded of the other 500 through the novel's art gallery. I felt as though I had regained memories. Nothing seemed to have been lost. I walked the last flight of stairs with a tingle in my spine.

On the last floor of the museum stands Kemal's bed, where a label informs you that it is here that Kemal lived until his death, contemplating his collection and chatting with Orhan Pamuk. I sat on the bench in front of the bed under the last sentence of the novel written on the wall: "Let everyone know, I lived a very happy life." And then I saw it. Next to his bed, there is one object that is not encased in any of the boxes and that Kemal evidently wants to keep by his side. It escaped the museum's careful chronology. I can't spoil the surprise for future visitors. Let them make the discovery themselves. Pelin Kivrak, Orhan Pamuk's assistant, mentioned to me that Pamuk wants you to cry on the last floor. I now know why. It is an object I utterly forgot about and an object that Kemal keeps forgetting about as well, but one that remains infinitely dear to Füsun.

I stared at this object for a long time, and I thought about how chaotic, unpredictable, and careless our relationships with and to other people are. Kemal stockpiles things that remind him of his beloved to cope with loss, echoing one of the epigrams of the novel from Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar: "These things that every woman used to complete herself—they induced in me a painful and desperate loneliness; I felt myself hers, I longed to be hers."

Did Kemal ever realize that we can possess objects but we cannot possess people? Some losses are irretrievable. A tingle in the spine is delightful, but that's not what I felt as I left the Museum of Innocence weeping like a fool. The sentimental reader in me, who appreciates the artifice of a work from a distance, and who has learned to keep the emotions of fictional characters at arm's length, had lost. As I left the world of the novel, it was a poet's words that reached me now—the reflection of C.K. Williams in "Archetypes," about "how separate we are all from one another, how even our passions, which seem to embody unities outside of time, heal only the most benign divisions, /That for our more abiding, ancient terrors we each have to find our own valor." And I stepped out of the Museum of Innocence and wandered back into the mess outside.


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