Donald Munro

In ‘Museum of Innocence,’ a stunning blur of fiction and reality

Nobel Prize-winning author Orham Pamuk in The Museum of Innocence in Istanbul, which he built to complement the novel of the same title.
Nobel Prize-winning author Orham Pamuk in The Museum of Innocence in Istanbul, which he built to complement the novel of the same title. The Museum of Innocence

Anyone who brings a copy of Orhan Pamuk’s “The Museum of Innocence” gets in free to The Museum of Innocence.

I turn on one winding street, then another. The old neighborhood, now gentrifying, bustles. A grocer sells apples. A millennial couple peers into a trendy furniture store. A man with a tea tray scurries from one shop to the next, delivering small glasses of the steaming beverage to neighbor customers.

Rounding a corner onto Çukurcuma Caddesi, a pleasant little street, I am greeted by a narrow, four-story building painted a superlative red. This is it.

I approach the admission window. Anticipation jolts through me. I can’t believe I’m here. I reach into my backpack for my book. It’s a Kindle, actually. “Do you accept this?” I ask the employee, pointing to the title page on my screen, unsure of where e-books fall under the admission policy.

He does.

I finished the first part of my journey the night before, reading the last page of the book with a tear in my eye. Now an even more memorable adventure is about to begin.

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The threads making up this tale can seem tangled. Bear with me. To help get you up to speed, let me start with just two characters.

Kemal is 30 years old: handsome, rich, entitled, what those in the West at the time would call a playboy. He lives in Istanbul in the tumultuous 1970s, a time of great change and unrest in Turkey. Kemal is about to announce his engagement to a very pretty and sophisticated woman from a family as impressive as his. After marriage, he will eventually run the thriving family business. A perfect life.

Füsun is a dozen years younger. She is a poor relation, a distant cousin whom Kemal remembers from when he was a teenager and she just a child. Now she is ravishingly beautiful.

Walking with his soon-to-be fiancée one evening in a well-heeled part of Istanbul, Kemal passes a snazzy boutique. In the window is a designer handbag. His fiancée expresses a desire for it. Eager to please, Kemal returns the next day to buy it for her. There he becomes reacquainted with Füsun, who works at the store. He falls in love. They have a torrid affair. His life is never the same.

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A couple of months ago, I was reading “The Museum of Innocence” because I knew I would be traveling to Istanbul. I wanted to sample something by Pamuk, who won the Nobel Prize in 2006. He is among Turkey’s most famous authors.

When I read the scene about the designer purse, which occurs quite early in the novel, Kemal, the narrator, explains that he is “placing” this object in his museum for me, where I will be able to see it one day.

At the time, I think: This is an interesting writing technique. By creating a virtual “museum,” a conceit in which the narrator builds an imagined structure for me within my mind filled with tangible objects, it makes the story resonate more. Fascinating.

I did not realize until halfway through that “The Museum of Innocence” – the work of fiction – is memorialized in a real museum of the same name in Istanbul.

Now let’s add another character to this discussion: the author himself. When Pamuk started writing “The Museum of Innocence” in the 1990s, he always envisioned it both as a novel and a museum. He’d always been intrigued with the notion of time, memory and the constantly receding moments of our existence. Those memories might fade, but objects can keep them alive. Sometimes in startling ways.

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In the novel, Kemal wants it all: a well-connected wife, and a happily subservient mistress. What he doesn’t count on is how obsessed he will become with Füsun, even when she breaks off the affair and marries someone else. Still managing to insinuate himself into her life, Kemal starts collecting small items during his encounters with her: a salt shaker she touched. A movie ticket she crumpled. A used lipstick she discarded. Over the years, as his life stalls because of his obsession, Kemal devotes his energies to his collection. Eventually, he buys her family’s old apartment building to house it.

The common, everyday implements of Füsun’s life accumulate. In today’s age of digital oversharing, in which pixels on Facebook purport to provide the measure of a person, the author reminds us that old-fashioned objects ranging from the banal to the precious – the items we wear, use, hoard, covet, throw away – can represent us in a way a thousand photos can’t.

Just how obsessed is Kemal? When you walk into the museum, you see a wall of 4,213 cigarette stubs, all smoked by Füsun, mounted with the precision of a butterfly enthusiast, each carefully charted by day, mood and circumstance.

Yes. Obsessed.

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The novel was published in 2008. The museum came later, not quite according to plan, in 2012. It took Pamuk a while to find the right building to buy in the Çukurcuma neighborhood. As he worked on the museum, he imagined what the display cases would look like, each one telling a small chunk of story. In one of the first, you get to see the designer Jenny Colon handbag, primly yellow, that sparks the chance meeting between Kemal and Füsun.

Did the plot of “The Museum of Innocence” come first, with Pamuk going on a treasure hunt of sorts with finished manuscript in hand as he looked for vintage objects to match his story? No. Often he would find something that intrigued him in a junk store, say – an old photograph, a small porcelain dog – and let that object steer the narrative in a particular way.

Other times, when he felt the need, Pamuk created his own objects. There was never a “Jenny Colon” handbag for sale in Istanbul. Pamuk asked a local artisan to create it for him. In perhaps the museum’s most elaborate creation, he imagined a Turkish brand of fruit soda and named it Meltem, which plays a part in the narrative. He went so far as to commission a vintage television commercial for Meltem, with an original jingle and period art direction, that plays on a video loop.

Throughout the book and museum, Pamuk maintains the fiction that Kemal and Füsun were real people. If you don’t read or listen between the lines, in fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking just that.

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There is one more twist to this tale. And one more crucial character. First, the twist: Pamuk wrote himself into his novel – and his museum. In the book, the idea is that Kemal, who wants to tell his story, asks the well-known author to write it for him. Eventually, as the two begin to organize the museum together, Kemal starts living in the attic.

Beyond the story of obsessive love, Pamuk pursues other themes. In re-creating a pivotal time, he comments on Turkey’s history in a sometimes oblique way. To depict the 1980 military coup that rocked the country, he describes Kemal riding in his car after curfew and being stopped by the army. They nearly detain him when they find a quince grater he’s just taken from Füsun’s house. The grater, and the tension of that moment, becomes a metaphor for unrest and terror.

Pamuk also has definite opinions about museums. We don’t need any more big, encyclopedic ones chronicling entire societies or time periods, he says. No more Louvres or British Museums, please, no more jewels of heads of state from throughout the ages. Museums should be small and personal, slices of lives, filled with everyday items that belonged to everyday people.

The most challenging theme of all is time. How are time and moments linked? If an object prolongs the memory of a moment, how does that affect time? A large spiral painted on the ground floor of the museum, which you can look down upon from the landings of each of the three upper floors, represents the Aristotelian concept that moments in time cannot be thought of as a straight line. For Kemal, those moments keep spiraling back to his starting point: his endless love of Füsun.

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And now, for the last character: me.

Or you, if you read the novel or get the chance to visit the museum. The reader becomes a partner in the story, whether he or she is aware of it. And isn’t every artistic encounter like that? Such experiences aren’t usually built on such a skillful framework of artifice as Pamuk has constructed here, but the compact between audience and creator remains the same. We’re each part of the equation.

I spend hours at The Museum of Innocence. I listen to every word of the audio tour. I examine each artifact, from the contents of Füsun’s bathroom medicine cabinet and dirty white sneakers to several hundred cigarette butts, in a happy, introspective trance. This isn’t like seeing the movie version of a book. It is allowing the movie in my mind to escape into the bright light of day.

Climbing to the penthouse, I see the bed in which Kemal slept while the museum was being readied. Did he really sleep there? Or was it just in the mind of his author-creator? In the end, it doesn’t matter. It feels real to me.

Both happy and sad, I shed a few more tears. Books, lives and journeys must end, whether they unfold in spirals or not. I grieve for Kemal and his long-ago Istanbul. I rejoice at my chance to experience a book in an entirely new way.

More on The Museum of Innocence

  • The book: Available in bookstores and online
  • The exhibition catalog: Orhan Pamuk wrote a companion book, “The Innocence of Objects,” also available online
  • The museum: Check the website at http://en.masumiyetmuzesi.org for more details on the museum, which won the 2014 European Museum of the Year award
  • More travel: Go to www.fresnobeehive.com for more photos and highlights from Donald Munro’s visit to The Museum of Innocence and Istanbul
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