Thursday, February 10, 2011

Pamuk's "Museum of Innocence"

Orhan Pamuk's most recent book, The Museum of Innocence, is the complex story of a man's obsession with a woman and all objects that he associates with her. It is also a very revealing exploration of Turkish life in a modernizing world -- the action takes place between 1975 and about 1985, before the current Islamist political success (and in some ways indirectly comments on this trend).

The story is told by the obsessive central character, and is entirely from his perspective. For him, ideas from Europe and old behaviors from the conservative past complicate the relationships between men and women as well as the function of family life. The narrator and his friends and family enjoy wealth, education, European fashions, and the results of the 80 year modernizing tradition of reform dating back to Ataturk. They look down on backwards and unsophisticated (and often poorer) families in which women still cover their heads.

However, the narrator senses in himself and others a tendency to want women to be both modern and sexually liberated and at the same time to be willing to play more traditional roles as wives, mothers, girl friends, and even as workers. The women in his view are aware that some men, having slept with their fiancees prior to marriage, never really respect them after marriage, and in condemning them find an excuse to bully them later.

They discuss a variety of such ideas. "Do you people know why boys in this country never learn how to flirt with girls?" asks the narrator's brother. "There's nowhere to flirt. We don't even have our own word for 'flirt.'" (Kindle location 2491)

The narrator has both a fiancee and a beloved. The beloved is a poor family connection whose reputation was ruined by her having participated in a beauty contest; she works selling imported clothing and other stylish items in a fashionable boutique. Her job further reduces her status in the world of wealth and class to which the narrator belongs; when he wants to insult her he refers to her as a "shop girl." His fiancee, however, is beautiful, has studied in Paris, and has a very wealthy family. Through weakness, he lets both affairs proceed, until the beloved runs away from him and marries in desperation.

The narrator's obsession first leads him to hole up in an old wooden vacation house on the Bosphorus with his fiancee, and finally leads him to spend virtually every evening for 8 years having dinner at the home of the beloved along with her parents and her husband; occasionally he also eats with his own widowed mother or in a restaurant. The plot is complicated -- but through these dinners we get a picture of Turkish family life even in such a strange and fraught relationship. (There's no question that this triangle is disfunctional, not a cultural thing.)

As usual, I paid a lot of attention to the many precise descriptions of the menus at the homes and restaurants. I'm a lover of Turkish food, so I especially enjoyed the food details, as well as enjoying the memories of my own trip to Istanbul: above, a photo of the Bosphorus from our hotel window.

From the old house with his fiancee, the narrator could see the ferry boat on the Bosphorus leaving the dock, "and there at the wheel we would see the mustached captain with his cap; so close that he could see the crackling mackerel at our table, and the eggplant puree and fritters, the white cheese, the melon and raki, he would cry, 'Good appetite.'" Then, in the morning "we would go to the Ferry Station Coffeehouse for tea with simits -- sesame rolls --- ... we wold cultivate the peppers and tomatoes in the garden; toward noon we would rush over to the fishing boats just returned with fresh fish to buy greay mullet and sea bream...." (Kindle location 3785-96)

Or later, at dinner with his beloved and her family "we ate macaroni with meat sauce, yogurt with cucumbers and garlic, tomato salad, white cheese and then the ice cream I'd brought ... and put straight into the freezer on arrival." (Kindle location 7810)

The boutique where his beloved once worked becomes a food import shop: "coils of Italian salamis were now hanging, and wheels of hard yellow cheese, as well as the European brands of bottled salad dressings, the pastas and soft drinks just entering the Turkish market." (Kindle location 8477)

The long tale of the narrator's obsession builds up by way of details about many things; the varied choices of food descriptions illustrate how this story is told. I can't begin to do justice to the depth and complexity of the author's presentation of a singular character in a setting that's so familiar to the author but so exotic to the reader. I think I found it more readable than any of Pamuk's previous books, which I have always enjoyed.


~~louise~~ said...

Love this review, Mae. I may just seek this book out. I have Turkish friends down in New York and I do miss them so...

Thanks for sharing...

Jeanie said...

Sounds like a fascinating book and another one to put on my (already very long) list!