It’s hard to put down Orhan Pamuk’s new book The Museum of Innocence and yet I didn’t like it. The book is a disappointment, for it constitutes a step backwards. A beautifully crafted and elegantly devised step backwards if you like, a balletic pas en arrière, but nonetheless! No trace here of the intriguing peculiarities, those counter-realities and non-linear devices that made Pamuk’s earlier books such as Snow and especially The New Life interesting. For in this tale of obsessive love on the Bosphorus there is nothing really new, and much that is old, borrowed and very very blue. Take two parts Proust’s la Prisonnière to one part Nabokov’s Lolita, add lashings of the author’s own Istanbul: Memories and the City and there you have it, The Museum of Innocence. For what we have here is really a nineteenth century novel, and probably a French nineteenth century novel at that. I’m not sure why Pamuk wanted to write a nineteenth century novel en plein 21me, but that is what he has done. The fascinating if not always fully successful experiments of Pamuk’s earlier books have been banished to make way for a straightforward linear narrative in which, by the way, not much happens. The minute delineation of the agony of lost love is truthful as far as it goes, and that it fails to go anywhere much in spite of itself can be attributed to the solipsistic hero’s utter self-absorption. He seems more in love with himself than with anyone outside the circle of his exquisitely morbid self-consciousness.
The story concerns Kemal, a privileged young bachelor from the upper echelons of Turkish society. On the verge of a very proper marriage to a very right sort of girl he falls madly in love with Füsun, an impoverished young shopgirl and distant cousin. His brief and blissful affair with her comes to an end when he fails to break off the engagement, but he then finds himself unable to forget her, and so falls ever deeper into a hopeless downward spiral of longing and pain. The engagement is broken off after all, but too late to do any good, for Füsun has hastily married a young filmmaker. When Kemal takes to haunting the dinner table of his lost lady and her husband, surely we are reminded of the great Turgenev languishing in the wake of la Viardot. So yet another romantic nineteenth century ghost is evoked, and the Reader is left to wonder whether there be anything happening behind these literary gestures other than a will to believe oneself a great romantic writer guy with a place in the western literary pantheon.
Actually, the best thing about The Museum of Innocence is the title. The book fails to deliver that spiritual depth the title promises, for the closest it gets to a ‘philosophy’ is a lot of second-hand Proustian stuff about ‘Time’ with a capital T. The conceit of the ‘museum’, where the self-obsessed narrator displays the bizarre ‘items’ in his collection of love’s memorabilia – her cast-off cigarette butts, hair clips, crumpled napkins, broken bits of food etc. etc. ad nauseam ad infinitum fails to achieve any kind of transcendental reality and comes off as merely childish, self-indulgent and silly. For all his self-declared ‘love’ for Füsun, she never comes to life on the page at all, but remains always an embodiment of male fantasy at its most egoistic and unattractive. We learn a lot about her skin and hair and nothing at all about the inside of her head, or heart.
What’s really wrong with this book is that it’s not about love at all, it’s about nothing. About the emptiness of a man obsessed with nothing bigger than himself and his own sensations, which he details endlessly, compulsively, over more than 500 pages (!) and without even the awareness of his own emptiness. When, at last, the prospect of happiness is snatched away yet again by a badly contrived authorial trick, I wanted to avert my eyes at such bad taste. But by then the author is only making manifest what the perspicacious Reader has long ago realised, that the presence of Füsun herself is completely superfluous to this utterly narcissistic ‘lover’. On the official website set up by his Turkish publisher there’s a photograph of Mr. Pamuk’s writing desk where, among the scattered paraphernalia, we are able to discern that he keeps a photograph of – guess who? Himself.