Orhan Pamuk, “The Museum of Innocence” – Book Review

Turkish Tea Saucer in Red, Gold, and White

A writer whose work surfaced after a search on Amazon.com for, of all things, saucers for my Turkish tea glasses, Orhan Pamuk captured my heart with his words.

In his unforgettable novel, The Museum of Innocence, Pamuk writes with a distinctive voice–a Turkish voice–at once familiar as that of my friends, and yet foreign as the ancient land itself, which I have only visited via brochures and shells and pictures brought back by my friends who make a yearly pilgrimage to their birthplace.

Pamuk’s is a man’s voice, though, who writes of women as a connoisseur savors a Monet. You don’t know whether to slap him or wish it were you in his arms as he treasures your every curve. You forget that he is just an author. He becomes his character, a young businessman, Kemal, with his deft use of first-person narrative and a banquet of words.

But then again, his is a Turkish man’s voice. His culture’s unconditional hospitality and respect for women pair with his testosterone-fueled imagination to produce a savory conundrum. As he muses about the pleasure of taking women, his thoughts turn again, now tender, to the women in his life: his mother, his lover, and his fiancée. He is torn from the get-go.

As the novel opens, the reader finds Kemal (whose name, for those not familiar with Turkish history, is symbolic of the modernity introduced by Kemal Mustafa Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey)  reflecting on the afterglow of a night of lovemaking with his distant cousin, the proletarian Füsün. A shopgirl whose sensuous lines overshadowed her poverty of mind, Füsun had given in to Kemal’s invitation to allow him to tutor her for her entrance examination for university admission, a test she had already failed once already. The promise of more such nights to come had drawn Kemal into reverie.

Kemal, however, is engaged to Sibel, an icy beauty whose patrician family’s old money had just about run out. University-educated, proud and modern, Sibel relished being one of the bold new guard of Turkish women, who gave her virginity, treasured by generations past, to her equally modern soon-to-become fiancé, seeing no obstacles to their eventual marriage, secure in Kemal’s devotion.

A few weeks prior to the opening scene, though, Sibel–ever the Material Girl–proved to be the instrument of her own undoing. Her desire for a designer purse she saw in a shop window had driven Kemal to purchase the bag the next day. The shop, of course, was the one in which Füsun worked. By the time Füsün had removed the handbag from the window, her innocent blush, coupled with her sensuous curves, had already entranced Kemal. In his mind, she was already in his arms. He tried to shudder off the thought, turning his mind back to Sibel, who certainly, he thought, would be overcome with delight. After all, he had spent a lavish sum of time and money just to please her..

His hope for redemption through this gift was soon dashed. With discerning eye, Sibel discovered that the bag was a knockoff–a clever imitation of the French designer’s work. Adding to Kemal’s misery, Sibel demanded that Kemal take it back for a full refund.

As Fate would have it, Füsün was alone when Kemal dropped by the store to return the bag, and thus, through a series of events, the smitten Kemal led the innocent Füsün’s virginity to the slaughter.

What does a man do when his carnal desires blend with his hospitality to welcome one too many women into his life? Either he goes all Bill Clinton and become a caricature of the Powerful Perv, or he obsesses about Perpetual Virginity.

Kemal does the latter, creating a museum in which he stores every object he can that Füsün ever touched in his family’s unused vacation flat, the one in which Füsun and he first made love. That moment just before he entered her becomes frozen in time for Kemal, whose obsession unravels his bourgeois façade.


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6 thoughts on “Orhan Pamuk, “The Museum of Innocence” – Book Review

  1. Thanks for your precise and accurate review. I haven’t heard of “obsesses about Perpetual Virginity” before and would like to know if this is a manifestation of OCD – obsessive compulsive disorder?

  2. You are most welcome, Martin. Thank you for your kind words and keen insight.

    I am not a psychiatrist nor a clinical psychologist. That being said, one must wonder if the fictional Kemal, were he a patient of a competent therapist, would have been diagnosed with OCD. I would bet good money that he would have been so diagnosed.

    That being said, the universal Virgin-Whore dichotomy that exists in the minds of so many of the male gender (present company excepted, of course), is a fertile ground for writers of both fiction and philosophy.

    “The Museum of Innocence” is a splendid example of one writer who latched onto that concept and ran it into the end zone, to use a metaphor from American football. That a male writer could step out of his maleness and enter into the realm of the feminine is, in my opinion, a work of genius.

    Orhan Pamuk enters into the human psyche with his portrayal of the bourgeois Kemal, torn between his passion and his common sense. His intimacy with the entire social spectrum of womanhood gives readers insight into the world of traditionally-raised men being thrust–suddenly–into a world impacted by feminism and all of its offshoots. Poor Kemal, so in love, yet so bound by society’s unspoken rules that he must keep even his soulmate a secret.

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