Top 10 Books of 2010: #2

The Museum of Innocence

#2: THE MUSEUM OF INNOCENCE, by Orhan Pamuk

The Turkish Proust! This is how I keep describing Pamuk to myself and to other people when they ask who he is. Proust and Pamuk don’t really have that much in common, really. One is a long-dead Frenchman, the other, a very alive Turk; one writes monolithic odes to childhood, the other, properly modern novels on a variety of themes. So, why do I keep calling him the Turkish Proust? I don’t know. It’s just this… pervasive sense that I get from reading Pamuk’s novels; I believe that he and Proust share deep sensibilities.

I mean, how can they not? Read this paragraph from Pamuk on the pain of true love, from the perspective of his melancholy narrator, Kemal, and just try to tell me it doesn’t sound like Proust:

The pains of true love reside at the heart of our existence; they catch hold of our most vulnerable point, rooting themselves deeper than the root of any other pain, and branching to every part of our bodies and our lives. For the hopelessly in love, the pain can be triggered by anything, whether as profound as the death of a father or as mundane as a piece of bad luck, like losing a key; such elemental pain can be flamed by any sort of spark. People whose lives have, like mine, been turned upside down by love can become convinced that all other problems will be resolved once the pain of love is gone, but in ignoring these problems they only allow them to fester.

I mean, don’t you see it, too? So Marcel.

The English translation of The Museum of Innocence came out in 2009 and people started talking about it. I had heard Pamuk’s name before (he won the Nobel Prize in 2006 for Istanbul) but didn’t know much about him. I picked this 600-page tome up from the library when it was still relatively new and had no idea what to expect.

I like coming to novels with this perspective of blankness, of utter ignorance. I refuse to read dust jackets and forewords and simply jump right in. The Museum of Innocence lends itself well to this type of approach. I think if I had known what it was going to be about, I might not have attempted it. But to prevent you from that same reaction, this is what I will say about it: It is a massive book, but a very beautiful one. (I did, after all, think it was the second-best book I read in 2010.)

The story follows one unlucky lover, Kemal, for many years as he more or less unsuccessfully woos his distant cousin, Füsun. Nothing is accomplished. Kemal begins to obsessively collect trinkets and love paraphernalia from his few, precious moments with his beloved and starts to file them away in an empty apartment, which, naturally, becomes the Museum of Innocence. Years pass. Füsun gets engaged, but not to Kemal. Kemal starts hanging around her family, hoping for some chance to win her back. Upon closing the final page, you may get the sense the novel is just 600 pages of emotional turmoil with a few mild climaxes and little resolution.

So, why read it? Here are two reasons:

1.) Pamuk writes with more skill than you or I could ever hope to have. Therefore, when you read The Museum of Innocence, you may simply enjoy the pleasures of a masterful novel. I don’t know a word of Turkish, but if Pamuk is even half as good in Turkish as he is in English, we have a brilliant author on our hands.

2.) But even more than that, it is always beneficial to read about Real Life. Woolf said that good fiction must be attached to reality at the corners, like the edges of a spider web. Not many novels accomplish this today. Most are difficult to believe, with characters–like Oskar Schell–who seem like nothing more than pure fantasy. We cannot recognize anything of the world we actually know in them.

This is why I stand behind The Museum of Innocence. Pamuk refuses to give us a fairytale. Because that’s how life is. The prince doesn’t always win the princess. And maybe the princess isn’t trying to be won after all. We don’t live in some rosy-edged bubble that obeys the predictable laws of the romantic comedy universe. Thankfully, Pamuk realizes this, too, and refuses to stoop to Nicholas Sparks’s level.

And beneath the simple futility of it all, the story holds together with the thin beat of hope. Because even though life rarely pans out the way we want it to, we still believe in our coming triumph. This is the motivating force for our downtrodden, love-weary narrator. After he remarks that an afternoon spent with Füsun was the “happiest moment of [his] life,” he qualifies that statement with this observation, which captures the spirit of this novel so well:

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,” even having lived such a moment before, but whatever they say, in one part of their hearts they still believe in the certainty of a happier moment to come. Because how could anyone, and particularly anyone who is still young, carry on with the belief that everything could only get worse: If a person is happy enough to think he has reached the happiest moment of his life, he will be hopeful enough to believe his future will be just as beautiful, more so.

Pamuk will tease you–and Kemal–with hope throughout The Museum of Innocence. He immerses you in Kemal’s universe as you begin to realize that it is all very real and very beautiful.

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