What’s So Innocent about Orhan Pamuk’s Museum?

From start to last, Pamuk’s novel The Museum of Innocence reeks of love and sex and, in part, of privilege. Yet, underlying the main character’s obsession with Fushon, a young woman at least 15 years younger than he, is an innocence toward the world that slowly emerges the longer I think about this extraordinary novel. We in the US define innocence almost entirely as the absence of wrong-doing or ignorance of human knavery. In these senses, the playboy lover is far from innocent. Though engaged to be engaged to the lovely Sibelle (forgive me for misspelling names–I listened to the novel on disc), he begins a clandestine love affair with Fushon, meeting her daily in the apartment designated by his wealthy family for cast-off articles.

     He also has the audacity to invite Fushon and her parents (distant relations of his family) to his engagement party at the Istanbul Hilton. Here we meet the glittering late-60s (?) jet-setting Turkish aristocracy–the daughters with their degrees from the Sorbonne, the mothers with their designer gowns and handbags, the fathers and brothers beginning to expand into global business. In fact, it’s a mistake about a Jenny Cologne (?) handbag that brings the narrator back to the shop where Fushon works and so begins their love-affair.

     Yet underlying this audacity is his wrong-doing: he has had sex with a virgin outside marriage, a tabu still very much in force in Turkish society. He also will soon discover that he has wronged his heart–for in attempting to have his cake and eat it too, he disparages his deep affection for Fushon. Try as he might, he can’t carry on the fiction that he still wants to marry Sibelle, a woman of his class and education. He has fallen completely and utterly in love with Fushon, to the point of losing his will to live. Only when he finally breaks it off with Sibelle and offers himself to Fushon’s family does he reach any kind of peace.

     Here begins the long, langorous heart of The Museum of Innocence. As the narrator is driven by the family chauffeur, evening after evening, to have dinner with Fushon and her parents, he discovers how radically her life has changed. To protect what we would call her honor, she has married a young movie-maker wannabe, retreated into the confines of her family’s apartment, and now wears a head scarf. For eight years the narrator’s slow loving attachment to simply being in her presence, eating dinner with her family, then watching TV with them becomes a routine that could almost be portrayed in one of those American TV family shows from the 50s and 60s. “Leave It to Beaver,” maybe. Or “Father Knows Best..”

     Gradually he puts aside all desire except to be near her. Still working at his father’s plant, he allows his father and brother to start-up a competing company. He tolerates Fushon’s husband (does he have any choice?), meekly offering to fund the young man’s movie-making ambition. Gradually Fushon’s marriage disintegrates, her desire to be a film star fades, but through dogged persistence she learns to drive a car. By then, the narrator has collected the astonishing array of tiny objects from his evenings at her family home, which will go into his Museum of Innocence, housed in the apartment where they first made love.

     This is a very long novel. It’s a tribute to the author’s seductive attention to tiny details, tiny changes in his relation to Fushon and her family, her neighborhood, her tribe–that we continue with him for so long. But, of course, the novel has to end. Fushon and the narrator become engaged and drive out of the city with her mother for a dinner, then overnight. Drinking too much, finally making love again, they step again into the relentless onslaught of history. I won’t tell you the ending, but it has to do with a car, driven very very fast by Fushon.

     This is the end of innocence! It’s the end of a life that can be redeemed by slow, loving attention. We are to understand that this museum the narrator spends the rest of his life preparing will celebrate a way of life before the crash. A crash with worldwide symbolic significance–though Pamuk has far too much sense and skill to do anything more than let us figure this out for ourselves. Speed for the sake of speed, eyes ahead on an ever-unwinding road–such a life makes the devotion the novel celebrates impossible.

     Underneath it all, the Museum of Innocence is a cautionary tale!

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