I first came upon The Museum of Innocence while wandering around the dimly lit streets of Beyoğlu in search of dinner at midnight . It was my first night in Istanbul on my own after finishing a project in Etiler, another neighborhood on the European side of city. The unusual-sounding museum on the street sign piqued my curiosity but I didn’t follow it as my nose led me in another direction, beckoned by the aroma of grilled food.
This was in May 2012. The Museum of Innocence, as I found out later, had opened in the previous month to much fanfare. The museum is the brainchild of Nobel Prize winner, Orhan Pamuk who is one of Turkey’s most internationally renowned contemporary writers. What makes his idea exceptional is that he wrote “The Museum of Innocence”, a love story that mirrors the museum’s collection.
You know how sometimes you come across something unfamiliar and it lingers in your mind? This is how I feel towards The Museum of Innocence – more so the museum than the book. Its name and the story that lies within its walls intrigue me. What is it that the museum contains that exemplifies innocence? Is this a museum about innocence lost?
Having recently read Pamuk’s memoir Istanbul: Memories and the City, I decided to pick up The Museum of Innocence when I came across a copy at a secondhand Oxfam bookshop.
The story revolves around Kemal who falls in love with a distant cousin Fusun and as he becomes increasingly obsessed with her, he starts collecting things that reminds him of the object of his unwavering love. There are 83 chapters, each represented by a display case in the museum. One of the most often mentioned ‘collection’ in the museum is Box 68, 4213 Cigarette Stubs – an installation representing the cigarette stubs that were once smoked by Fusun and collected by Kemal over several years.
The book complements Pamuk’s memoir Istanbul: Memories and the City with additional insights into modern Turkish history, how its society and its people’s mindsets appeared to have changed after Ataturk founded the nation.
Pamuk throws the spotlight on the pretensions of upper-class Turks in the 1970s and 1980s, how the popular pro-Western attitudes contradicted with the people’s conservative traditional values. For instance, pre-marital sex was frowned upon and Hilton hotel was considered to be “one of the few civilized establishments in Turkey where a well-heeled gentleman and a courageous lady could obtain a room without being asked for a marriage certificate.”
Pamuk also writes about the disappearance of open-air cinema gardens, as mulberry and plane trees were chopped down to make way to car parks, apartment buildings. He also highlights the “terror years” preceding the 1980 military coup.
While I enjoyed reading about Kemal’s steadfast pursuit of Fusun, I was also impatient to finish the book which sometimes made me feel like I was stuck in a room with a lovelorn, melancholic and lonely man.
The Museum of Innocence turned out to be an enjoyable, educational and sentimental read. One of my favourite quotes in the book is:
In fact no one recognizes the happiest moment of their lives as they are living it. It may well be that, in a moment of joy, one might sincerely believe that they are living that golden instant “now,”… but in one part of their hearts they still believe in the certainty of a happier moment to come.
Pamuk writes in the book that “the Proud regard a museum as a natural ultimate destination for their collections” intended for proud display whereas “the Bashful collect purely for the sake of collecting” and “regard their compulsion as an embarrassment that must be hidden. Because in the lands of the Bashful, collections point not to a bit of useful information but rather to a wound the bashful collector bears.”
Is the museum based on the book or is it the other way round?
Apparently Pamuk had purchased the building that now houses the museum first before getting started on writing the book. The chosen building in the working-class Çukurcuma area in Beyoglu district thus set the stage for the novel and its ill-fated lovers.
When I got to the end of the book, I was surprised to see an index of the story’s characters. This reminded me of non-fictional books with their references and indexes! After reading The Museum of Innocence, I’m inspired to visit Pamuk’s bricks-and-mortar version the next time I’m in Istanbul.
Have you read The Museum of Innocence or visited the museum itself (or even done both)? What do you think about about the book/museum/both?