Nobel prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk has established arguably the first museum in the world replicating the chapters of a novel.
Pamuk’s ode to literature is hidden away – but not far away – from the tourist noise of terrifically busy Istanbul. It is found in a residential area adjacent to the popular Istiklal shopping street where thousands of the city’s estimated 13 million inhabitants traverse daily. It is named after Pamuk’s novel, The Museum of Innocence, published in 2008.
Inside the museum unfolds the love story of Kemal and Füsun against the ever-present mesmerising Istanbul. The romance between Kemal, described in the novel as a “wealthy heir about to be engaged to aristocratic Sibel”, and the “beautiful shopgirl” Füsun starts in the mid-1970s.
As often happens, love leads to tumult for Kemal too, as he “finds his established world of westernised families, opulent parties, society gossip and dining-rooms rituals is shattered”. But he shares a love worthy of being documented in a museum which Pamuk as author and curator uses to elicit the desire to fall in love.
The epic chapter titles of Pamuk’s novel accompany each box and announce tragic one-liners such as “An Indignant and Broken Heart Is of No Use to Anyone”. Another noteworthy announcement is contained in this chapter title: “Happiness Means Being Close to the One You Love, That’s All”.
Pamuk’s passion project comforts what he refers to, in an audio clip issued by the museum, as an inner artist needing release.
“There is a dead artist in my soul alongside a novelist and he is trying to resurrect himself. The museum is a way for the artist in me to express himself visually,” he says.
“I conceived such an idea because I love small and neglected museums in the backstreets of big cities. When you come across one of these small jewels you feel that once upon a time a person with big ambitions and a vision established this institution but now it is fading away and it has an aura of poetry and neglect. I started the Museum Of Innocence to create such a place in Istanbul.”
Pamuk explains in the audio clip that when he “bought this building (housing the museum) the neighbourhood was completely run down and full of neglected buildings”. That was in 1999.
“Like all of Istanbul, this neighbourhood improved and developed parallel to the urban renewal of the city,” he says.
Pamuk wrote The Museum of Innocence from 2002 to 2008 and while writing worked on the museum.
“It’s not that I wrote a novel that turned out to be successful and then I thought about a museum. No. I conceived both the novel and the museum together,” he says.
Wood and glass boxes – one box for each of the 83 chapters of the eloquently crafted 728-page novel – are spread across three floors. A book shop stocking Pamuk’s published work is located in the basement.
At the entrance of the museum is one of its most intriguingly detailed exhibits. It is named ‘4,213 Cigarettes’ and is dated 1976 to 1984. It holds the same amount of cigarette butts referred to in the piece’s title. It represents all the cigarettes that Füsun smoked when Kemal was with her.
Kemal collected them all and Pamuk – as documenter of their story – has pinned all the cigarette butts to the wall and made notes below them to mark significant moments that the two lovers shared. Füsun’s red lipstick is still evidenced on many of the cigarette butts that cover the wall from top to bottom and left to right.
Nine small TV screens fitted into the wall on the left of the cigarette butts are part of ‘4,213 Cigarettes’. The TV screens show black-and-white footage of a Füsun’s right hand holding a cigarette. She is seated at a dinner table with her Kemal not in frame.
These personal touches run throughout the museum and Pamuk allows one to feel as if you have met his fictional characters.
In the museum piece depicting chapter one, ‘The Happiest Moment of My Life’, Pamuk uses sound to bring to life the moment when Füsun’s earring dropped during her love-making with Kemal. The sound of a light breeze, referencing the novel, is heard in the background.
Pamuk has also recreated reality by juxtaposing poignant moments with everyday rituals. On the museum’s first floor, which chronicle chapters one to 51, is a piece entitled ‘I Was Going to Ask Her to Marry Me’.
It comprises a mirror above a bathroom sink. Shaving equipment, a toothbrush, soap and the sound of water running make up the rest of the display items. This is how Pamuk visualises his novel’s chapters, like movie scenes, that draw spectators closer to the heart of his story and characters.
A recurring character in the intimate museum is Istanbul. The love story of Kemal and Füsun is chronicled in the city’s streets. It is unsurprising that Istanbul features heavily in The Museum of Innocence as Pamuk has previously dedicated a novel to the city where he resides.
Pamuk is like countless other Istanbul locals who are proud to show how much they love their historical city. It is presently common to see Istanbul’s residents wearing a T-shirt boldly displaying ‘Istanbul’ across their chests.
Two striking chapters visualise the city and its famous love story; the novel has been translated into various languages in almost sixty countries. One is ‘The Streets That Remind Me of Her’ which includes a map of streets marked in red to trace the young lover’s passions.
Another piece shows a picture of the Bosphorous Sea that runs through Istanbul life as citizens cross it to make their way between the Asian and European sides of the city. ‘The Shadows and Ghosts I Mistook for Füsun’ maps points around the Bosphorous where Kemal may have spotted his lover. Connected to each point is a black-and-white photograph that features only one person dressed in colour: Füsun wearing red.
The museum’s second floor covers chapters 52 to 79. It includes vintage cologne bottles, a collection of miniature ceramic dogs and a reflection on time.
Pamuk writes on the museum wall, in the voice of Kemal, that if we treasure our time “for its deepest moments then lingering eight years at our beloved’s dinner table no longer seems strange and laughable”.
“Instead, this courtship signifies 1,593 happy nights by Füsun’s side. It was to preserve these happy moments for posterity that I collected this multitude of objects large and small that once felt Füsun’s touch, dating each one to hold it in my memory.”
The last floor is a penthouse that covers chapters 80 to 83. It showcases the copies of the novel’s various translated versions. It displays Pamuk’s handwritten manuscript of the novel and offers insights into his writing process.
Pamuk’s ring-bound A4 notebooks contain scenes that never made it into the novel. Also contained therein are sketches, started in December 2008, for the museum.
Pamuk took breaks while writing the novel. When he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006 he returned to the novel only two months later. But he persisted during the “Cannes film festival in May 2007, where he was a member of the jury, Pamuk spent mornings working the novel in his room”.
Pamuk wrote the novel’s last sentence in late April 2008. This was six years after he had written its first line: “It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn’t know it yet.”
Museum notes inform: “Pamuk had decided on the novel’s opening sentence far in advance. On 18 March 2002, during a visit to New York, he sat in the famous library on 42nd Street and wrote it down over and over again.”
The penthouse is enveloped in a sense of longing. One feels a sense of loss in this room even though Kemal and Füsun had never been part of anyone’s real lives.
“Between 2000 and 2007 Kemal Basmaci lived in this room, where Orhan Pamuk sat and listened to his story. Kemal Basmaci passed away on 12 April 2007,” reads the museum note on the room’s wall.
Kemal’s simple metal bed, a suitcase, a side table with drawer and orange wall paper complete the minimalist setting. A wooden chair is placed near the bed, presumably where Pamuk would have sat while listening to Kemal’s story for seven years.
The novel’s last line, Kemal’s testimony, is also written on the wall. “Let everyone know, I lived a very happy life.”
The Museum of Innocence opened in Istanbul on April 28 2012. For more information, log on to the website www.masumiyetmuzesi.org.
(This article was published in the Weekend Argus regional newspaper in Cape Town, Western Cape province in South Africa, on June 24 2012.)
Review of The Institute for Taxi Poetry
Published by Umuzi
Reviewed by Yazeed Kamaldien
Working class characters have never carried such an air of middle class about them as in Cape Town-based writer Imraan Coovadia’s latest offering.
Perhaps this appears as a result of becoming so accustomed to ‘poverty porn’; depictions of the working class as pitiful illiterates who do not care much for refinement. Yet this is the beauty of a book that aims to reflect a working class story without allowing readers to feel sorry for the misery associated with being poor.
Coovadia’s strength is in creating believable characters like this novel’s narrator Adam Ravens. The author locates these characters in a mix of real and imagined worlds.
Ravens is employed at the fictitious – and oddly-named – Jose da Silva Perreira Institute for Transport Poetry based at the University of Cape Town. He is a former taxi poet who is troubled by the murder of his mentor Solly Greenfields who was found dead in his Woodstock home.
The reader follows Ravens from his mentor’s funeral while discovering along the way that he has a dislocated affection for his rebellious son Zebulon who is a “sliding-door man” in the taxi business.
Ravens meanwhile also has to play host to Gerome Geromian, a pretentious but respected taxi poet, who happens to be his mentor’s rival, in the same week that he eventually discovers who killed Greenfields.
Coovadia does not offer much else in terms of the storyline. He keeps the narrative simple, avoiding twists and turns generally expected after a body turns up dead on the opening page of a novel.
Coovadia writing is brilliant. He strings together words to form lyrical sentences. He creates endless memorable one-liners. He entertains with his wit and irony.
His shortcoming though is that he does not paint enough descriptive scenes with his words. The taxi industry where his story is located screams with colourful characters and dramatic episodes. But this novel, for example, does not describe the taxies that would carry the poems penned by taxi poets.
One finds very little visuals to grasp. We fail to be lured into the visual setting where these romanticised documentarians of the working class experience played.
Likewise, Coovadia references Cape Town alongside the city’s humourous edge on every other page. As a local, one locates the context with ease. It elicits a pleasurable satisfaction. Like when you watch a film, and spot Table Mountain, and feel that you’ve been in that film.
But without the detailed or descriptive writing there is not much meaning to the references within our backyard. I wanted to feel the words breathing while engaging them. I longed for the visual and visceral Cape Town to be shared with the world.
This does not detract though from Coovadia’s ability to leave one with memorable left-wing characters who talk truths about townships that vote for electricity.
On an ordinary day, these characters might come across as terribly ordinary losers. But Coovadia’s taxi poets could stand in front of an elite audience and teach them a thing or two about poetry. They can reference, as they do in this novel, the greatest pens that ever wrote. And that makes them terribly posh working class heroes.
PS. This book review was published on 11 June 2011 in the Cape Argus newspaper (see photo below by Mishqa Rossier)
When art, fashion, film and media power-players gathered recently to reflect on their craft it was Cape Town-born artist Robin Rhode who opened the three-day festival with a series of video works.
The Istanbul International Arts and Culture Festival, held last weekend in Turkey’s we-never-sleep Istanbul, pulled so many stars it made the moon look lonely.
Rhode was in stellar company alongside New Zealand-born film director Andrew Dominik who has worked with actor Brad Pitt on two films. Dominik has another Pitt project lined up and will also shoot a film about late actress Marilyn Monroe.
Skinny-forever fashion veteran Carine Roitfeld, who was editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris for a decade until last year, was also at the festival to launch her latest book.
Turkish big-timers meanwhile did not disappoint as this country’s novelist Ayşe Kulin, who reportedly sells the most books in her homeland, shared insights into how she would research a dialect of a region that she was going to write about to ensure that her work remained true to her subject matter.
It was the third edition of a free-for-all festival organised for the third year by its Turkish founders Demet Muftuoglu-Eseli and Alphan Eseli. Filmmaker Eseli describes it as a “cultural weekend where participants feel very relaxed”.
Rhode found his way through opening night’s flashing lights and a presentation about his art the following day to talk to Weekend Argus about what it’s like working in an international context.
“A lot of South African artists have become so self-engulfed and self-relational that they have forgotten that we live in a global village. Art needs to be so transcendental. There are certain ideas that I grew up with that can now be celebrated internationally,” he says in between interruptions to have his photo taken.
But he adds that throughout his career he has always kept his eye on home because “there is a lot that we can gain from South Africa”.
“It influences us wherever we are. We can’t discard that experience,” he says.
Rhode is an international artist though, represented by the Lehmann Maupin gallery in New York. He has been Berlin-based for the last 10 years, having emigrated shortly after graduating from the South African School of Film, Television and Dramatic Arts in 2000.
Since then his artistic works – in photography, performance, video and street art – have been praised and shown worldwide. His narrative is described as a “comment on urban youth culture, post-colonial context, and society at large”.
Rhode’s work has also been snapped up for public collections at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, France; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., United States; and a few New York museums, including the Museum of Modern Art.
The question comes up whether he thinks he would have been as successful as he is now had he never left South Africa.
“That is not a guarantee,” he offers. “If I lived in South Africa I would still succeed, but differently. Maybe I would be more socially active. I would be more community orientated. Maybe I wouldn’t work with a gallery. Maybe I would have moved into education.”
In any case, he adds: “Young South Africans, especially coloureds, assimilate global culture”. So his work might not even have been that different from what it is now. He understands that this is why his work speaks beyond borders; references similar sub-cultural experiences in the existence of urban anywhere.
“We assimilated a globalised identity. When I project this out to an international context it is found to be startling. When someone from the geographical periphery mirrors the global experience it becomes a major talking point,” says Rhode.
It is near ironic – but not unique – that Rhode, initially gazing in from the periphery, has garnered recognition and global art credentials for challenging the art world with what started as street art. He started drawing on public walls before showing photographic and video works inside art galleries.
“I have an obsession with walls that exist in the public realm. I want to bring the outside world into the white cube (of the gallery) and destabilise the atmosphere of a gallery or museum space,” he explains.
“I wanted to use the street as a starting point to create my art. A lot of my work takes place on the walls of various street corners. I want to communicate my work to the broader public, especially where people have limited access to art galleries.
“I was interested in shifting the idea of the viewer from being elites who had access to attend galleries to the broader public, people who were unemployed, walking the streets. This was my target audience.”
Protest graffiti and the “tension of being one of very few students of colour” articulated Rhode’s dialogue with society. He sought to redefine the art world and produce work on his terms. He adopted humour and play as his tools.
“The idea of play can be used as a quiet force to deal with other more dramatic or serious issues. Humour allows me to engage with serious issues. It allows me to destabilise very important issues in society, whether it’s political or social,” he says.
“It is part of my identity as a coloured South African. We are a community filled with gesture and role-play that has allowed us to overcome other social issues. It’s a way of building resilience, coping and to show a smile in the face of fear.”
He continues that humour and play “helps us to endure”.
“It is amazingly positive. It has helped me to sustain my ideas in a very ruthless international context. I’ve adopted these particular languages of art and coloured identity to find an authentic language. It’s not only specifically South African but it relates to other societies and geographies.”
Intersections of class, race and culture all appear in the work that Rhode presents. His Piano Chair, for example, shows a black man “sacrificing” a piano. The latter includes – as with all Rhode’s works – a simple chalk drawing on a wall that a performer interacts with.
Rhode says while there are “many deep meanings” in this piece, it is essentially paying homage to a deceased black South African pianist that he admired.
While continuing to reflect on his work, Rhode explains that what he does “comes from a sub-cultural influence born from a social margin”. Fortunately, it has led him to “being on to something”. Does he mean to say that he is successful?
“Success is so hard to define… but I’m working my ass off,” he offers.
He would be working hard these days as he has just established a record label to “publish limited edition vinyl records not for financial gain. I have also started a publishing company because I love publishing”.
“If you have a platform to pursue your thoughts then you are on to something,” he continues.
“If you are able to be free… Freedom is important. Being able to do what you want to do. If you are able to pursue a career and self-actualise then you are successful.”