I went to a party at the weekend where I met a young man who was originally from Turkey. On being introduced, I told him that I’d just read a book in which one of the characters shared his name.
‘Is it by Orhan Pamuk?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ I said, irked at being so predictable. ‘It was wonderful,’ I added.
‘Orhan Pamuk,’ he repeated. ‘Yes, we don’t really like him.’
I was surprised by his response. My understanding of Orhan Pamuk is that he is astonishingly popular in Turkey. Indeed, a Turkish newspaper was successfully sued by Pamuk’s publisher for questioning the extremely high Turkish sales figures (100,000 at the time) for My Name is Red. His books have, literally, unbelievable sales in Turkey; what could this man mean by saying that ‘we’ – which he clarified to mean ‘we Turks’ – don’t like him?
Well, apparently, Pamuk is too clichéd, too boring, too political to be of any interest.
Orhan Pamuk is undoubtedly political. In 2005 he got into trouble for an interview with a Swiss newspaper in which he said that ‘a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in this country and I’m the only one who dares to talk about it’. Charges were brought against him under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which legislated against insulting Turkishness.
His novel Snow is generally agreed to be his most overtly political, questioning Islamism in Turkey and probing at the headscarf controversy.
Snow is also all that this man at the party had read of Orhan Pamuk’s – or, at least, he said he’d read a bit of it. I pointed out that there is a great deal to Snow that isn’t pure politics, that isn’t clichéd at all. I loved it for the way Pamuk describes that inspiration for writing a poem can strangely and suddenly just come. And for the way he captures the muffling, deadening effect of snow. It reminds me of the close of Joyce’s staggeringly good final short story in Dubliners, ‘The Dead’. Here is Joyce’s final line:
His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
It’s the sibilance, the somnolence, the softness of snow – its gentle suffocation. However, this chap clearly didn’t have a swooning soul when it came to Orhan Pamuk. I briefly attempted to talk about some other Turkish writers – Elif Shafak, for instance – but when he started looking at his iPhone and saying he had to go, I got the hint and went and poured myself another Gin and Tonic.
So I’ve just finished Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence. I was particularly intrigued to read it, not just because I so loved Snow, but also because there is talk of Pamuk opening an actual real Museum of Innocence in Istanbul to go alongside the novel.
What begins as a love story soon reads a little strangely, with the occasional kink in the prose. And then the penny drops – the book’s narrator is guiding the reader around the museum:
Now, years later, and after a long search, I am exhibiting here an illustrated menu, an advertisement, a matchbook, and a napkin from Fuaye, one of the European-style (imitation French) restaurants most loved by the tiny circle of wealthy people who lived in neighborhoods like …
Repeatedly, throughout the story, there is a shift in the narrative to point out a particular object on display – a bottle of Meltem soda, a collection of cigarette butts, stills from Turkish films, a teacup, a ruler … The story of Kemal’s love for Fusun is told through these objects.
But what initially seems like a little quirk grows depth as we learn how Kemal obsesses over these objects during the years in which he is estranged from Fusun. He spends hours with his collection of objects, touching them, inhaling their scent, caressing them, drawing comfort from their association with his love, Fusun. And while there are obvious drawbacks to this synecdochal love, it helps to relieve his pangs of heartbreak and longing.
It is only much later on in the book that Kemal decides to turn his enormous collection of objects into a museum. So much can be told through an object; a 728 page love story is told through this collection.
It reminds me of Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris by Leanne Shapton. This book was a quirky Christmas hit last year – a faux auction catalogue of all the objects that remain from a couple’s failed life together. Alongside jewellery and furniture are post-it notes and pyjamas. And it is the tiny flotsam of daily life that has the most narrative value.
Strangely, finishing The Museum of Innocence coincided with the fiancé and I having a mammoth tidy-up of our flat. Although we’ve been living here now for half a year, until yesterday there was still a box or two lurking at the back of the cupboard, piles of papers heaped up on the table, a stray bill or two tucked inside a paperback on the windowsill.
And, going through it all, we found a great deal of flotsam. I discovered an old diary, which I leafed through to find notes of past meetings:
7.30 Thom Ritzy
Olivia coffee 3pm
And neurotic to-do lists:
dentist, cobbler, wax, phone Dad.
There were old letters, birthday cards, half-filled notebooks, biros, a ball of string, roll of selotape, chargers and wires for things that we no longer possess.
Going through it all stirred a wave of nostalgia, and I found it almost painful to see so much of it thrown away.
‘We can’t throw away those cards!’ I shouted, as I saw all my twenty-fifth birthday cards going into the recycling pile.
‘Well what do you want to do with them then?’
I see his point. It’s a bit mad to collect all these remnants of the past years, to put them all away in a box somewhere, to store them all up, when they’re not useful and we don’t have the space to keep them. And, I hope, I’ll get a whole pile of new birthday cards this year, from pretty much exactly the same people.
But there are memories tied to each piece of flotsam – stories, moments, conversations … I don’t want to forget them all. I can understand Kemal’s temptation in The Museum of Innocence to collect everything, to preserve everything, to look at everything again and again, remembering what each piece signifies.
But I don’t want to live in a museum. And I imagine it might be more than a little while before I’m important enough for anyone to want to come and visit a museum full of my things. So, I have allowed the flotsam to be cleared (except for a few especially dear cards); now it is time to go about acquiring some more.