The seeds for the grandiose new novel by Istanbul’s Orhan Pamuk were covertly planted midway through Snow, his metafictional murder mystery translated into English in 2004. In that earlier novel, the narrator (who is also a writer called Orhan Pamuk) walks into a room piled high with everyday objects that his friend Ka used before his death. The sight prompts the narrator to remember that he “had told him [Ka] about The Museum of Innocence, an idea I was still keeping from everyone”.
Several years later, Pamuk’s playful hint has indeed become a fully realized novel, his first since he won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2006. But where Snow was exhilarating in its chilly ingenuity, full of riddles and in-text puzzles, The Museum of Innocence draws its strength from old-fashioned love and loss. And like its source material, the book is sprawling, beautiful, frantic, and, in the end, painfully honest.
Passions guide the way from the opening pages, when a Turkish businessman named Kemal begins a blissful affair with Füsun, a bewitching young shopgirl, right under the nose of his fiancée. Things come to an inevitably messy head, forcing Kemal to spend year after torturous year—Pamuk seeming to relish how slowly he makes time move, fully immersing the reader in his hero’s restlessness—trying to win back his mistress’s hand, this time legitimately.
Along the way, the only things that console Kemal are the multitudes of small objects he squirrels away that bear some connection to Füsun: from figurines she once picked up and admired to 4,213 of her cigarette butts, carefully annotated by date. Throughout, Kemal addresses readers as if they were guests at his imagined museum.
The exhibits, such as they are, speak to both the curator’s unflappable devotion and his near-obsessive streak. At one point he cheerily introduces “Füsun’s white panties with her childish white socks and her dirty white sneakers, without comment, to evoke our spells of sad silence”.
With its constant staggering between dejection and nirvana, the book can be an exercise in endurance; after you finish, the prospect of re-reading it seems daunting at best. But the ever-crafty Pamuk manages to leave an artful imprint of his hero, kleptomania and all, on your psyche all the same.
Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely. Knopf Canada, 536 pp, $34.95, hardcover
(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, November 12, 2009)