“It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn’t know it.”
So begins the new novel, his first since winning the Nobel Prize, from the universally acclaimed author of Snow and My Name Is Red.
It is 1975, a perfect spring in Istanbul. Kemal, scion of one of the city’s wealthiest families, is about to become engaged to Sibel, daughter of another prominent family, when he encounters Füsun, a beautiful shopgirl and a distant relation. Once the long-lost cousins violate the code of virginity, a rift begins to open between Kemal and the world of the Westernized Istanbul bourgeosie—a world, as he lovingly describes it, with opulent parties and clubs, society gossip, restaurant rituals, picnics, and mansions on the Bosphorus, infused with the melancholy of decay—until finally he breaks off his engagement to Sibel. But his resolve comes too late.
For eight years Kemal will find excuses to visit another Istanbul, that of the impoverished backstreets where Füsun, her heart now hardened, lives with her parents, and where Kemal discovers the consolations of middle-class life at a dinner table in front of the television. His obsessive love will also take him to the demimonde of Istanbul film circles (where he promises to make Füsun a star), a scene of seedy bars, run-down cheap hotels, and small men with big dreams doomed to bitter failure. In his feckless pursuit, Kemal becomes a compulsive collector of objects that chronicle his lovelorn progress and his afflicted heart’s reactions: anger and impatience, remorse and humiliation, deluded hopes of recovery, and daydreams that transform Istanbul into a cityscape of signs and specters of his beloved, from whom now he can extract only meaningful glances and stolen kisses in cars, movie houses, and shadowy corners of parks. A last change to realize his dream will come to an awful end before Kemal discovers that all he finally can possess, certainly and eternally, is the museum he has created of his collection, this map of a society’s manners and mores, and of one man’s broken heart.
A stirring exploration of the nature of romantic attachment and of the mysterious allure of collecting, The Museum of Innocence also plumbs the depths of an Istanbul half Western and half traditional—its emergent modernity, its vast cultural history. This is Orhan Pamuk’s greatest achievement.
Orhan Pamuk was born in Istanbul in 1952 and grew up in a large family similar to those which he describes in his novels Cevdet Bey and His Sons and The Black Book, in the wealthy westernised district of Nisantasi. As he writes in his autobiographical book Istanbul, from his childhood until the age of 22 he devoted himself largely to painting and dreamed of becoming an artist. After graduating from the secular American Robert College in Istanbul, he studied architecture at Istanbul Technical University for three years, but abandoned the course when he gave up his ambition to become an architect and artist. He went on to graduate in journalism from Istanbul University, but never worked as a journalist. At the age of 23 Pamuk decided to become a novelist, and giving up everything else retreated into his flat and began to write.
His first novel Cevdet Bey and His Sons was published seven years later in 1982. The novel is the story of three generations of a wealthy Istanbul family living in Nisantasi, Pamuk’s own home district. The novel was awarded both the Orhan Kemal and Milliyet literary prizes. The following year Pamuk published his novel The Silent House, which in French translation won the 1991 Prix de la découverte européene. The White Castle (1985) about the frictions and friendship between a Venetian slave and an Ottoman scholar was published in English and many other languages from 1990 onwards, bringing Pamuk his first international fame. The same year Pamuk went to America, where he was a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York from 1985 to 1988. It was there that he wrote most of his novel The Black Book, in which the streets, past, chemistry and texture of Istanbul are described through the story of a lawyer seeking his missing wife. This novel was published in Turkey in 1990, and the French translation won the Prix France Culture. The Black Book enlarged Pamuk’s fame both in Turkey and internationally as an author at once popular and experimental, and able to write about past and present with the same intensity. In 1991 Pamuk’s daughter Rüya was born. That year saw the production of a film Hidden Face, whose script by Pamuk was based on a one-page story in The Black Book.
His novel The New Life, about young university students influenced by a mysterious book, was published in Turkey in 1994 and became one of the most widely read books in Turkish literature. My Name Is Red, about Ottoman and Persian artists and their ways of seeing and portraying the non-western world, told through a love story and family story, was published in 1998. This novel won the French Prix du meilleur livre étranger, the Italian Grinzane Cavour (2002) and the International IMPAC Dublin literary award (2003). From the mid-1990s Pamuk took a critical stance towards the Turkish state in articles about human rights and freedom of thought, although he took little interest in politics. Snow, which he describes as “my first and last political novel” was published in 2002. In this book set in the small city of Kars in northeastern Turkey he experimented with a new type of “political novel”, telling the story of violence and tension between political Islamists, soldiers, secularists, and Kurdish and Turkish nationalists. Snow was selected as one of the best 100 books of 2004 by The New York Times. In 1999 a selection of his articles on literature and culture written for newspapers and magazines in Turkey and abroad, together with a selection of writings from his private notebooks, was published under the title Other Colours. Pamuk’s most recent book, Istanbul, is a poetical work that is hard to classify, combining the author’s early memoirs up to the age of 22, and an essay about the city of Istanbul, illustrated with photographs from his own album, and pictures by western painters and Turkish photographers.