The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk, 2009
This is a love story set in Istanbul in 1975. The main character, Kemal has just entered his rich father’s business after having earned a business degree at an American University and served his military duty. Kemal is 30 and has chosen the girl he wants to marry, the Sorbonne education Sibel. Sibel has proven she is a modern girl by giving her virginity to Kemal before marriage. They occasionally make love in Kemal’s office after the other workers have left for the day. Kemal sees a beautiful young Turkish girl with bleached blond hair and miniskirt and realizes the girl is Fusun the 18 year old daughter of his mother’s seamstress. Fusun is working as a shop girl and has already gained notoriety for herself by entering a beauty pageant. Kemal seduces the willing Fusun and they make love 44 times before his engagement party.
Skiing in Uludag Turkey <> <> <> <> <> <> <> <> <> <> <> Istanbul Yacht
We are introduced to social life for Kemal’s set including shopping trips to London and Paris; ski trips in Turkey and Switzerland; yachting in the summer; restaurants and clubs.
1954 Istanbul Hilton
The engagement party is an important part of Istabul social life for Kemal’s modern class. His family spends months planning the party and deciding on the guest list which is in the hundreds. They choose the contemporary Hilton as the appropriate site for such a modern group. The guests will expect to be served foreign liquor import of which is highly restricted and much effort goes into acquiring it. Kemal at the last minute adds Fusun and her family to the guest list. Fusun comes, perhaps to see if Kemal will really go through with the engagement. At the party Fusun dances seductively with several men including 23 year old Orhan Pamuk. It is a dance Orhan will never forget.
Istanbul Yali on the Bosporus
Fusun disappears after the party and Kemal’s obsession begins. He and Sibel move in together to a family summer Yali cottage. Kemal soon confesses and Sibel, thinking he is ill arranges for him to see Istabul’s only psychoanalyst. But Kemal loves his obsession and Sibel soon gives up on him, breaking off the engagement. This is difficult for her because she is no longer a virgin and everyone in their set knows she and Kemal were living together. For all their efforts to act modern, old prejudices persist. Kemal doesn’t see Sibel again for 31 years.
For more than a year Kemal doesn’t hear from Fusun then gets a letter inviting him to her parents home where they announce that Fusun is married to a fat young film industry screenwriter. Fusun hints that the rich Kemal should underwrite her husband’s career and that she wants to become a movie star. Realizing this is the only way he can continue to see Fusun, Kemal plays along beginning an eight year odyssey in which Kemal comes to have dinner and watch television four nights a week at Fusun’s family’s house. He does this exactly 1593 times. To sustain himself at other times he starts removing and replacing objects from the house that were touched by Fusun. He also collects her cigarette butts (1486, each annotated with what Fusun was doing as she smoked it).
First Turkish Best Foreign Film Nominee Yol
This obsession gets a little old after a few hundred pages but Pamuk compensates a little by capturing an image of Istanbul life during this 9 year period. Kemal starts going to Turkish films for the first time in his life (as an excuse to be with Fusun even though the husband is also in attendance). Foreign films are shown in the movie houses but Turkish films are shown outdoors in movie gardens in the summer. All are melodramas and Turkey boasts that it is the third largest producer of movies after the US and India. None have ever been shown outside Turkey. The industry is dominated by the board of censors and the major challenge of making movies is to get the censor’s approval. Movies may deal with rape or infidelity but must do so indirectly. Foreign films are likewise subject to censorship so that Lawrence of Arabia (anti Turkish) is never shown and Last Tango in Paris is so abbreviated without its sex scenes as to be unintelligible.
After Grace Kelly’s death, the state operated television ran a series of her films in the evenings. Fusun became fascinated with Kelly, particular when Kelly is shown driving a car. Fusun insists that Kemal teach her to drive. A major character in the novel is Kemal’s 1956 Chevrolet that had belonged to his father. Import of foreign cars was prohibited in the early 1960′s and the old American cars from the late 1950′s and early 1960′s were preserved with great care much like those in Havana. It is this car the Fusun learns to drive.
This period was one of major political unrest in Turkey as the nationalists and communists waged a civil war with bombings, assassinations and riots. Periodically the military took over, imposing martial law. Kemal’s only comment on all this:
I had no interest in politics, and it seemed to help no one that this war was being waged in the streets by an assortment of ruthless factions none of which had anything in common with the rest of us. When I told Cetin (the chauffeur), who’d been waiting for me outside, to drive carefully, I was speaking as if politics were as natural a cataclysm as an earthquake or a flood, and there was nothing we ordinary citizens could do except to stay out of its way.
Poe House Baltimore
Later in life, Kemal wonders what to do with the huge accumulation of Fusun memorabilia. He starts visiting museums around the world (1743 in all) with the same obsession he gave to the pursuit of Fusun. His favorite is the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Baltimore but he gets the idea that any collection can be made into a museum given money and dedication. His completed museum, housed in Fusun’s former family home, is left to the care of Orhan Pamuk who also wrote this account of his life of obsession.
This reader was interested in the insights into the perceptions of young Turks growing up in this period. Their parents grew up in the era of Ataturk who died in 1938 and who played much the same roll in modernizing Turkey as Meiji had played earlier in Japan. For Ataturk, the secular state was key to modernization of Turkey. By the next generation, this secularization was taken for granted by all “modern” Turks. Non modern Turkish men could be recognized by whether their wives and daughters wore headscarves. It was absolutely essential for a “modern” Turkish woman never to appear in public wearing a headscarf. The importance of this seemingly minor dress code distinction is now a central issue in France.
The young of this period and class were educated in Western Europe or America. While proud to be Turks, they still felt isolated and largely ignored by the outside world. They wanted increased visibility and respect but using cinema as the example in this novel, they were unable to produce films that would receive wide distribution in the West until much later. A 1964 movie Topkapi featured a heist from the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul and showed scenes from the city. It was directed by an American, Jules Dassin, and starred an Englishman, Peter Ustinov, A Greek, Melina Mercouri who married the director, and a German, Maximilian Schell. This is one of the few times a major Western film had been shot in Turkey. The Turkish film, Dry Summer, was made in the same year 1964, and it won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. In 1982, another full Turkish production, Yol, was smuggled into Switzerland for post production and submitted it to the Academy for Best Foreign Language Film.