‘I conceived, thought of, imagined both the novel and the museum together'. Orhan Pamuk speaks about the making of The Museum of Innocence in an exclusive interview.
Orhan Pamuk inaugurated his Masumiyet Muzesi or The Museum of Innocence in Istanbul on April 28. The Museum is inspired by his eponymous novel, published in 2008, the story of star-crossed lovers in the Istanbul of the 1970s and 1980s when Turkey experienced great social and political turmoil and a military coup. Through it all the Turkish bourgeoisie lived its comfortable and often profligate life, a society marked by custom, tradition and social taboos.
In the novel Kemal, a rich Istanbul playboy falls desperately in love with his distant cousin Fusun, a shop girl. Marriage is out of the question; the social gap is too wide. And Fusun has been tainted in that she has surrendered her virginity to Kemal knowing fully well he will never marry her.
Orhan Pamuk describes how Kemal collects his lover's belongings and sets them up in his museum. It is a book about memory, lost, desperate love, obsession. But it also deals with the submission of women and the suppression of their social and political ambitions. The objects on display give the viewer a slice of Istanbul life and society during those turbulent times. The Museum is housed in Cukurcuma Street, in a tall, narrow building built in 1897.
Is The Museum of Innocence your most Proustian novel?
Black Book is also Proustian and in that sense I am also proud of The Black Book too. Perhaps it is Proustian. There is a lot about remembering. But compared to Proust I have a greater desire for painting social panoramas. If Proust is only about the Parisian aristocracy, I look at a bigger canvas. My hero Kemal is from the upper class but my Fusun is from the lower class and I always want to see the whole picture.
But so far as the joys of remembering goes, the Museum is more Proustian because the events take place from the mid 1970s to the late 1980s. I am more of less the same age as my characters so I don't feel it is a historical novel. So it's not too nostalgic or too Proustian — it is essentially a love story — it chronicles the story of an upper class Istanbul rich guy and his twice removed cousin, a shop girl.
Also it does not treat love as a sugary thing, does not put it on a pedestal but looks at it as something that happens to us — just like traffic accidents — a very humane thing. In that sense the novel explores what we do when we fall in love without sugarising it with the melodramatic tones of the pop songs of sitcoms although it does have a melodramatic Turkish, Hollywoodian-Bollywoodian end.
One thing that struck me hugely: Kemal does not understand why he has fallen in love with this woman. He is not just obsessed but truly, deeply in love and he feels physical pain as a result. How did you feel when you were writing this?
An ordinary reader would pity poor Kemal because he is suffering so much, especially towards the end. But in the beginning he is such an egoist and his love for Fusun is an excuse to suppress her; a very typical thing, actually, for the non-Western world where the more a man loves a woman the more he wants to suppress her and to possess her. The novel is a novel of love but it also explores love in a society where men and women do not come together very easily, where sex outside of marriage is problematical and there is very little space for negotiation for the lovers. And this is not an unusual thing. I sometimes think, the world is seven billion people but just one billion of them meet before marriage. For the rest, it is arranged marriages.
For an Indian reader, this book speaks volumes and you have captured here in such voluminous and sometimes excruciating detail, what no Indian writer has been able to do equally successfully: hold up a mirror to our own society as much as to yours because in many ways how Indian society looks at women is very similar. You might be very upper class and yet the whole virginity issue is central to marriage as is the class and in India, the caste issue.
The upper classes of most of the non-western world legitimise their power and wealth saying to their people “Oh, we aren't like you. We are westernised and European and we are civilised because we have Western education and we wear western clothes.”
But then faced with criticism from Europe over human rights or free speech they say “Oh but we are not like you because we are Indian or Chinese, we have old traditions, different measurements and our culture is different. We are ancient civilisations so our societies have to be seen and measured differently.”
The bourgeoisies in emerging countries say that the centre of the world is shifting and that is true. But then if that is the case these societies should no longer blame the west for their troubles. If the centre is shifting there should be new ground for us to criticise our culture, institutions, governments in a rational way without falling into the trap of Orientalism.
But if the centre is shifting, there is what we have received from the Enlightenment, in terms of values or a broad framework within which society should evolve: The whole notion of the individual at the centre of society. But at the same time society is conscious of justice for all education, emancipation etc. Should that also then not shift to the emerging countries?
Of course, provided what we call the values of the Enlightenment are the values of all humanity. We should defend our local cultures but also embrace values such as free speech, democracy, feminism, respect for minorities. And in that sense the Museum of Innocence is as feminist as a man in Turkey can be! So many of the details in the book are from my experience of Turkey of the late 1970s to the mid 1980s — a woman driving a car is a sign of modernity but also for the woman a sign of freedom — even though she may be driving her father's or husband's car! But when women drove cars they were jeered at or ogled in the streets by men. My mother did that and she felt abused and angry and she was upset with all the “moustachioed men”, she said, who were rude to her. I have transposed my mother's experiences to Fusun who takes driving lessons and feels insulted by the derisive and condescending attitude of the instructor. All that speaks of a society's attitude to women.
The way Kemal and also Fusun's husband manipulates her desire to become a movie star is also a reflection of that. When modernity emerges men desire women who are successful and who have a social place in the world but once this success becomes more than expected, then all these anxieties and insecurities emerge in the men. Their reaction to Fusun is to get close to her and soon as that happens, they wish to control her.
Tell me about the actual physical Museum; the writing of the book and the simultaneous idea of the Museum. I think you had the title first, you started with that and then you went about buying the building, is that right?
It is an architectural building in whose attic Kemal spent the last years of his life. It's not as if I wrote a successful novel and then said let me turn it into a museum. No, I conceived, thought of, imagined both the novel and the museum together. I began thinking of this novel in the mid 1990s, when I said to myself, I'll buy a house and imagine a family living there and then chronicle their stories, their daily lives from the kitchen to their street lives, what they do or say and how they live; how they make money, the tempo and tenor of their lives — how they talk, think when they watch TV or listen to the radio.
So I thought I would collect the objects of their ordinary lives and weave these into my story and also write about the making of the museum within the novel. I don't know why I did this. A bit ambitious you could say… a djinn entered … but art and literature is like that. You follow your own impulses and I followed my inner footsteps. Of course I also wanted to be a painter at the beginning of my career and a part of that early ambition also crept into the making of this Museum.
Which of the objects you have described have particular significance? Did you use objects to convey particular details about Turkey that are part of the subterranean atmosphere of the book but are not immediately apparent?
Yes. Take the example of the quince grater. I was writing about the 1980 coup in Turkey and although it does not directly affect the lives of my characters, it is certainly there in the background. The question was how to express this repression, this feeling of oppression, which even the upper class bourgeoisie feels when faced with the brutality of the army. I found I could convey that through this object, an ordinary household quince grater.
Kemal has taken to pilfering objects from Fusun's house; anything she has touched or handled gives him relief. He has just stolen the quince grater and he is on his way home in his car driven by his faithful chauffeur. He has stayed out beyond curfew hours and is racing back home when he is stopped. And every one in Turkey knows that in the middle of the night the army stops you, searches you and you feel guilty even if you are completely innocent. You have to be nice to them, please them and that is what my character Kemal — a lovelorn, rather confused character — faces. So the coup enters into the narrative obliquely, almost sideways through anodyne, ordinary things.
And so you kept on adding to the collection as you continued to write the book?
Yes but I also kept on buying objects thinking these would take the story this way or that. But that did not happen and the objects are in the Museum but not in the story. At other times I liked some objects so much that I made the story go there. For instance downstairs there is a photograph of Kemal's father with his military friends having a picnic and drinking and smoking on the grass.
First I found the photograph, then I wove these young men into the novel. But you do not necessarily notice that. Because I realised, as I was making this museum and writing the novel, that when we read a book there are so many hundreds, thousands, of details in a book and those details begin to fade away from our minds. What are left are emotions and strong impressions.
So when people first visit the museum they exclaim over objects: ‘Oh, Kemal's this or Fusun's that…” but after a while they drop that and they pay more attention to the atmosphere. This is very similar to reading and remembering novels. After the first 100 pages or so we remember less of the details but more of the sensations. In a way this museum is not an illustration of the story but the illustration of those sensations.
I see that in the Museum you have the invitation card for Kemal and Fusun's engagement party or the letters from Kemal's company Sat Sat or the bottles of Meltem fruit drinks. Did you have these objects specially made?
Of course. And we specially printed movie tickets, restaurant menus but we also found other restaurant menus of that era and we mean to continue to collect and archive this kind of ephemera. We used a lot of what Marcel Duchamp called “readymades”. Something that was really used in the quotidian and which in the book you can identify with one or other character. There were times like some brands or objects, which the novel mentions and which actually do not exist.
In order to produce them I went to artists and worked with them. Meltem soda, for instance, did not exist. But other fruit sodas did. In 1966 Coca-Cola entered the Turkish market and this also produced a series of Turkish-made sodas and I remember in those days most of the advertising for such products was done by European models. Now of course almost 90 per cent of the advertising uses Turkish models.
Coming to your heroine Fusun, she has a kind of utter, shimmering beauty. We know she has long legs and a slim waist but we do not know what she really looks like …
The mystery of Fusun is in her silence. In the end the book asks the question: was it a suicide or an accident? Or was it that she had no talent for driving and it was just a car accident or did the accident happen because she wanted to be in films and was imitating Grace Kelly in “To Catch a Thief” and stuck her elbow too far out of the window? So, for me, Fusun is a means to see our whole culture. Her inner life, her anger, her silence is important for me.
This is also enhanced by my attempt to write about sophisticated way of communication between lovers — not through words but through looks, through gestures, through signs and symbols and it was hard for me to do that.
The atmosphere of the book is not that of lovers negotiating their love in a democratic way. It is the more powerful Kemal, her family and her husband on one side who are curtailing that dialogue while towards the end of the book she herself begins to emerge.
Fusun's anger is due to the fact that she can never confront the man who very subtly in a manipulative manner has suppressed her. He promises her things and then those things are not realised. He wants her to be famous but then he is afraid of what happens if she becomes too famous.
On the other hand her way to success also can be only through the energy and success of that man.
It's a sunny day in Istanbul and a mild breeze gently ruffles the leaves in Istiklal Square. I make my way cautiously down the steep uneven road that leads to Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence. Masumiyat Musezi. It's the same word in Urdu, Persian and Turkish. “Masumiyet? You mean the same word exists in India too? How wonderful,” Pamuk exclaims.
The 1897 building occupies the intersection of Cukurcuma Avenue and Dalgic Street. It has two entrances, one giving out on the avenue, the other on the tiny street that branches off it. The number on the Cukurcuma side is 24. But in Dalgic Street it is 2.
There is an error in the book. Fusun writes to Kemal inviting him for dinner at the address Dalgic Street 24. Pamuk has obviously mixed up the two street numbers. I point it out to him as we sit chatting in the attic of the narrow, three-storeyed building painted a dull crimson. “How could that happen? It's a mistake. Is it really that way in the English version? I must check that out,” he says visibly flustered. “No one seems to have noticed it before.”
The building is gawky, top heavy with a narrow trunk that supports overhanging balconies and picture windows. “When Pamuk bought the building, this area of town was so run down, there were drunken street fights here every night. The area has become slightly more upmarket. But, in the rains, it is dreadful because the water comes rushing downhill and we can get flooded within minutes. It's not a particularly beautiful part of the city. Modest families. There were many speakeasies here before, flea markets and junk shops. This place has been cleaned up considerably and many foreigners, mainly French, live here,” says Zain, owner of the corner antique store.
The museum is laid out in chapters – and contains 83 vitrines – one for each chapter that follow the progression of the book. Fusun's yellow stiletto and her flowery print dress occupy pride of place as does a large wall display of the 4,213 stubs; the cigarette she is supposed to have smoked and which her lover, Kemal, assiduously squirrels away.
The top floor attic, a tiny space letting in some lovely morning light, is taken up by the bed where Kemal sleeps during the last days of his life, his suitcase and the red tricycle both he and Fusun rode as children in years of bygone innocence. This floor also houses Pamuk's handwritten manuscripts with his bold, almost florid, hand leaving an indelible imprint not just on the page but also on the inner eye. The wooden vitrines are beautifully arranged with bibelots, glass objects, jewellery, snapshots, paintings, trinkets, cinema tickets, restaurant menus (both fake and real) giving a vivid picture of Istanbul. The Museum of Innocence is an ode to Pamuk's love for his city.