A Feminist’s Take on The Museum of Innocence
Curator, keeper or custodian of a museum or other collection.
When friends of mine in the museum field who visited Istanbul talked about the Museum of Innocence as one of the museums they’d been to and impressed by, I would usually change the subject to something else as I had never been to the museum. Neither had I read The Museum of Innocence, the novel by Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk which of course I felt was unacceptable. The thing is I wanted to first read the book and then visit the museum in one of my trips to Istanbul—which is the way one should do—but it always got postponed somehow. Until I finally did, and this is about all that.
I have to confess that I hadn’t read any of Orhan Pamuk’s books at all even though my parents and almost all of my friends had, until I spent three months in India. There, everywhere I turned, in every kiosk and bookstore I’d come across Pamuk’s books in English. Not only that, every well-to-do, well-read Delhi society woman I met, upon hearing that I was from Istanbul would talk to me about an Orhan Pamuk book they'd read. One day, ashamed to say I was a virgin of Pamuk’s writing and sort of change the subject, I said to this beautiful woman of how impressed I was that so many in India were appreciating Orhan Pamuk’s books. Whereupon she commented that “He has a little more fame here in India, since he is dating Kiran Desai, the writer”, which took me by surprise. And I replied, “Really? Isn’t Kiran Desai like our age?” She said, “Yes,” but looked at me as if to say “So, what is wrong with that?” There is nothing wrong of course only if we do not judge a successful writer, who is a woman, when she dates a much younger successful writer who is a man.
The next day, after I sort of chastised an Indian college student for not having read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, I said “that’s it”, and went ahead bought My Name is Red, The Black Book and Snow and read them in that order but with other books in between them. It doesn’t matter that “I” like them a lot, but that in India, a country of master storytellers and listeners/readers that Pamuk’s works are loved and revered says how good he truly is at his art. In each book you are transported into the story, and its effect stays with you. I believe those who don’t like Pamuk have not read any of his books, or are not much of book readers anyway.
Having said that, years after I got The Museum of Innocence, and wondered about the name. The name sounds like a Museum of Tolerance, like a Holocaust Museum or something; was this something political, I pondered. To answer that, no, not at all, although it does tell the story of the history of Turkey at the time with political events taking place in the background. As I started reading The Museum of Innocence the same thing happened: You are there! Another friend of mine, and art collector who is a voracious reader and a museum professional told me that no other book in recent years has affected her the way The Museum of Innocence did, and that she still was under its influence for days afterwards. It is also very real for us I guess because you are in places you know in Istanbul and takes you to events typical of life in bourgeois Istanbul society. Now, personally, I couldn’t continue further and stopped reading after a while: Because it read too much like Lolita and it bothered me, the subject that is. I couldn’t continue reading because you can’t read the book and stay detached. It’s impressive.
Then last September I went to see an exhibition in the New Museum in New York, called “The Keeper” and as part of the exhibition one of the talks was with the New Museum’s Artistic Director Massimiliano Gioni and Orhan Pamuk, on his experience of writing the book and establishing the museum in Istanbul, which I couldn’t go to. Which was smart, I watched it online after I went back to reading the book as my trip to Istanbul was fast approaching.
Enough already! Right? What is the novel about? Well, in a way it is of a typical bourgeois Istanbul family’s son, Kemal who is in his 30s, and engaged to Sibel, the daughter of another family like his. There are his friendships, the places they go to, the social life, all that is going on in Istanbul. Then, Kemal becomes obsessed with his 18-year-old distant cousin Füsun, who is on a lower socio-economic level. She works at a boutique in Nisantasi which sells fake designer fashion, she does not live in Nisantasi or any of the other well neighborhoods, has graduated from a public school and is getting ready for her university entrance exams. And thus starts their affair. It is very sensuous, and it enthralls you. (An American friend of mine who is an Art history Professor in a major US university, who after having read the book gave it to her 87-year old mother, told me that her mother afterwards commented that there was too much sex in it. We both laughed of course, but the thing is, while there is no explicit sex in it—not at all—it is so sensuous, it really is sexual).
So the book is about Kemal’s obsession with Füsun, a young woman, all told within the context of life in Istanbul. I loved reading about the Istanbul of the day with the historical references like the anarchy and terror of the late 1970s, post-military coup of 1980 with the nightly curfew and all. The streets of Nisantasi, Tesvikiye, Maçka, the engagement party at the Hilton, society columns in the newspaper are all told with a deep sense of nostalgia. More importantly the book shows the differences between the bourgeoisie and the rest: both distant relations who are poor and nouveau riche friends.
The label in the close-up image below explains it all
Also, the issue of a young woman staying virgin until marriage is a recurrent theme throughout the book. Füsun, the poor (for lack of a better word), cousin whom Kemal is obsessed with, is in a way ruined because she loses her virginity (innocence?), whereas Nurcihan and Sibel, daughters of two well-to-do bourgeois families, educated in Europe, end up marrying well, although not without much difficulty: Nurcihan marries the nouveau-riche Mehmet with whom she completely avoids pre-marital sex to ensure marriage (and does she really love him or does she marry him because she has no other choice, I don’t know), whereas Sibel, Kemal’s ex-fiancée, somehow ends up marrying Zaim, Kemal’s once-best friend, and one of the most-likeable characters—the other being Kemal’s driver Cetin—although you don’t get to know much about any of the other characters. The whole book is from the protagonist’s point of view, all told in the first person, which is also the genius of Orhan Pamuk, as this is the story of the life of Kemal and his life-long obsession, his infatuation of a woman. Thus it’s all about him of course. Pure genius!
And it is exactly this, the whole infatuation of a younger woman, over the legal age but just, told in the first person narrative, felt like Lolita to me. Füsun, this beautiful, poor young woman is an object of desire—a woman who has to be possessed. In The Museum of Innocence the book, as he also does in other works, Orhan Pamuk appears as himself, just like Nabokov did. And then later in the book Pamuk talks to Kemal about his impressions of Füsun and how smitten he too was of her. Mind you, not because of her character, intelligence, or knowledge, solely because of her beauty, as if an object to be taken.
After I picked up the book from where I left off, it then felt to me like Anna Karenina. Because it was about obsession, society and the misogyny of it all. More importantly, because Füsun has no control over her life. She disappears for a while with her family, marries someone, and they continue to live with her parents. She wants to become an actress. Kemal after finding them, together with her husband lead Füsun on, and continue to take her innocence as she trusts them, while both men prevent her from getting any acting roles, controlling her until the end. In the meantime, on his daily visits to their home, Kemal, his obsession ever growing, since he can’t have her, instead starts taking objects from their home: hair barrettes, cigarette butts, a quince-grater, whatever you can think of. Many, whom I have spoken with about the book loved how the objects Kemal collects has the power to evoke memories just like Proust’s madeleine does, and make you remember.
All in all, a great book, although I thought it was of a bygone era of noblesse oblige and worried that the writing style might not be too appealing to Millennials and the generations after, and also that hopefully women have other ways of taking control over their lives and could not really feel it. We are living such lives of doing a million things all at once that I don’t know if an 18-year-old today, same age as Füsun, can read the whole book as intensely as it has to be. I don’t know.
Display of Füsun's Cigarette Butts
What I am saying is this: Read the book, and then go to the museum. It is really beautiful, the whole concept of it all: A book and the museum. I would go ahead and say that this undertaking is exemplary of contemporary art as a whole because turns out Pamuk came up with the idea of his novel as he was visiting small museums—houses of muses—the world over and was inspired to write the novel, with placing the importance of objects and their place and meaning within the telling of the story and opening the museum with the collection at the same time. It is when you think of it, really hard. For example, the novel mentions the details of Füsun’s dress which is then displayed in the museum. Pamuk first had to find the dress and then write of it in the book. It’s like a whole other way of a theme park I guess. The displays, the way they are arranged show not only of the care in collecting them, but each tell a story separately and as a whole. They are not outdated, but quite contemporary. For example, Füsun’s cigarette butts are made into a beautiful artwork (if Pamuk needs funds for the museum, I would recommend he makes editions of these and sells them).
Close-up of the display of Cigarette Butts
Also in the book Kemal talks about the hand gestures and moves of Füsun’s hand as she smokes, and these are made into a beautiful work too.
Nine-channel video installation of Füsun's hand holding a cigarette
The museum received the European Museum of the Year Award in 2014 but I am not sure I would call The Museum of Innocence a museum in the strictest sense of the word. A museum is kind of an authority on truth. Everything we see in a museum we take to be as fact. While the objects in a museum can be works of fiction, i.e. a painting is work of fiction, whereas an object which belonged to a specific person must be authentic, and his, if it is displayed in a museum. Using the same objects, a curator can weave a whole different story from exhibition to exhibition, but the objects, what they really are would remain the same, although they can be interpreted differently. While the Museum of Innocence with its collection do tell the story, the history of life in secular Bourgeois Istanbul, through an obsession told in a work of fiction, the dress we see as Füsun’s is in fact not Füsun’s. Füsun never really lived to become an object of desire, and perhaps no woman has ever lived a life such as that of Füsun’s.
Füsun's dress as the centerpiece of a display case
The Museum of Innocence, the collecting while writing, and then the making of the museum, the physical building and the collection, took years in the making. I visited the museum at a time when everybody in Istanbul was depressed and worried and told me not to take the subway, or go to Istiklal Street. From the Sishane subway station on Istiklal Street full of hip and hipster types I walked on the narrow walkway by the Italian Consulate to find the museum in Çukurcuma walking behind three women wearing headscarves. Inside I was surprised to see that it had quite some visitors. All Turkish, and mostly younger than me. In museum visits I also observe visitors and try to see what they think and like. And I was kind of happy that so many young people had read the book and were visiting The Museum of Innocence on a cold Winter day. Maybe I was wrong all along. And the future did not look so bleak anymore. Then, as I marveled at one display case after another two well-dressed women in their 50s came next to me, and one turned to the other and said “What a love story!”
Love story? In an instant, as my hopes for a better future were crushed. I wondered if a well-to-do woman in her 30s in turn seduced a poor 18-year-old male cousin, continued a relationship with him, controlled him for years, prevented him from ever becoming successful, eventually stealing, collecting his belongings, even his cigarette butts for years, and told it all from her point of view in a fabulously sensual way, not letting the reader know what he thinks, would this woman still call it a love story? Like I said, this happened in a split-second before I noticed two young women in their 20s in generic jeans and black puffer jackets on their other side, who also turned towards these older women and gave them the disapproving, almost disgusted look. And I thought, okay. It is not so bad. And the future can be bright. Young women do read, appreciate art, visit museums, and can distinguish love from obsession. And be the drivers of their own destiny.