Review: Istanbul’s Museum of Innocence
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.)