Headscarves and Arranged Marriages: Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence

I know no one from Turkey, but some of my students practice an African version of Islam. They are Somali, have come here as refugees, often after spending years in Kenyan refugee camps. Thus I have acquired a small education in the vast culture of Islam.  But nothing could have prepared me for the range of lifestyles represented in Orhan Pamuk’s novel The Museum of Innocence.

     Set in the fifteen years from the early 1970s to the middle 80s, the novel (so far) is told exclusively from Kemal’s point of view–Kemal, the second son of a rich, Westernized industrialist, who on the eve of his engagement to another child of wealth, Sibel, falls in love with a beautiful and much younger shop girl named Fusun.

     Let’s pause here: the shop where Fusun works is called the Champs Elysee. Kemal is made aware of it because Sibel notices the beautiful clothes in the shop window. Thinking to buy her something lovely, he enters and selects a handbag. The “girl” who serves him has long blond hair, wears a mini skirt. He instantly becomes fascinated with her. His fiance, Sibel, who’s studied at the Sorbonne and knows French fashion, spots the handbag as a fake. In the process of returning it, Kemal discovers that Fusun and he are distant relations. They knew each other as very young children. And she is studying for a university entrance exam. He becomes her math tutor at an empty apartment his parents retain for their cast-off furniture. Here in this apartment Kemal and Fusun make love, day after day for months.

     Another pause: the two have no worry that their violating the Islamic tabu against sex before marriage will result in a long train of sadness and loss. In fact, they become so wedded–through touch, smell, small gestures, and the quiet of the apartment–that they create a world apart. Then comes Kemal and Sibel’s engagement party. WAIT! the reader wants to shout. Are you sure this is a good idea? But Kemal does not think deeply or clearly. He even invites Fusun and her parents to long drunken night. It is a disaster. From then on the lives of these three rather innocent people will be changed forever.

     I will not reveal all the agony and beauty of these changes only jump ahead to the 8 years Kemal will spend visiting Fusun and her parents in their seedy apartment, lovingly welcomed by “Aunt Nasife.”  Fusun now wears a headscarf. She is married to a sweet movie-maker. Kemal’s incessant appearance for dinner and TV watching is one of the oddest stories of wooing I’ve ever read, for still in his innocence Kemal hopes to induce Fusun to divorce her sweet husband, escape the headscarf “retirement” and marry him.

     But she is deeply wounded. She has let her hair grow out black. As politics in Istanbul unravel into street fighting and bombs in coffee houses and shops, the movie industry where Fusun hoped to become a star, degenerates into porn flicks. Kemal becomes an obsessive collector of objects from Fusun’s home, which he takes back to the isolated apartment and fondles, trying to absorb her essence through what she has touched.

     Is her life in late 20th-century Turkey much different from that of a harem girl a century or so earlier? She takes to painting images of Istanbul birds, in the style of Persian miniatures. She wears a headscarf and especially after the street violence escalates, she becomes enclosed in her parents’ apartment. Any ambition she has for a modern life, slowly ebbs away, and she becomes remote and sullen.

     I am more than halfway through, listening to the book. Disks 14-17 are left. I do not know what will happen. But the author’s way of framing the story with frequent, brief mentions of these 8 years, and what the narrator Kemal will do with the objects he collects, how he will later tour musuems all over the world, not only heralds an end to his wooing of Fusun, but hints that at that end he will be alone.

     It is a very long book, but only half the size of, say, Anna Karenina, which it somewhat resembles–a story of an upper-class woman who attempts to live outside marriage with her lover, and eventually finds her own fiber disintegrating. Where the books mainly differ is in the obsessive, first-person narration. In Pamuk’s novel we don’t get outside Kemal’s point of view; whereas Tolstoy revels in parallel stories, especially that of a landowner, his love and eventual marriage to the aristocratic young woman he adores, their care of his tubercular brother, his love of the land, the various peasants who are his helpmates in agriculture. This parallel life changes the way Anna and Vronsky’s story affects us. It expands the world, presents an alternate universe to their obsessive, diminishing choices.

     Still I admire Pamuk’s narration: subtle as it weaves through Kemal’s and Fusun’s constant psychological changes, as their options disintegrate, and it’s becomes clearer and clearer that they will be bound together in loss.

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