Lolita on the Bosporus

Lead Review

Lolita on the Bosporus

Orhan Pamuk favours short chapters that lead the reader from one entry to the next, turning back to correct or amend. He is directorial in The Museum of Innocence, his enchanting new novel of first love painfully sustained over a lifetime. In 83 chapters, a privileged Istanbul resident named Kemal tells of his obsession with Fusun, a beautiful shopgirl.

The story of this ill-fated passion is preceded by a map of the city. Pamuk’s earlier readers may recall the broad sweep of the Bosporus, the mosques and market streets, the Pamuk Apartments in Nisantasi, from his historical book of wonders, Istanbul: Memories and the City. Kemal renders all views — the abandoned apartment of his transporting sexual encounters with Fusun, the years of twisting his life out of shape to honour his enduring passion. He writes from Istanbul, not America where he studied, not Paris where upper-crust Turks were acquiring their gloss of “free and modern.”

The city is on exhibit: the romantic touch of decaying wooden houses, the sturdy apartments of the nouveaux riches, postcard views of the shimmering Golden Horn, Soviet tankers on the Bosporus and a Frenchified restaurant once in favour. Kemal often reminds us that he writes from memory. The lovers meet in the Merhamet Apartments, in a flat abandoned by his mother. He dates his first clandestine meetings with Fusun to the spring of 1975. Or was it earlier, a family outing? (Fusun is a distant cousin.) He understands documentation as a serious pursuit in his life-absorbing love affair, “having become — with the passage of time — the anthropologist of my own experience.”

At that time Pamuk’s fledgling curator was to marry the lovely Sibel, a fashionable young woman with enlightened views, so enlightened she had gone the limit with Kemal. Virginity becomes a leitmotif — who will, who will not break the code of no sex before marriage, honoured in Turkey back then. Kemal’s engaging memories largely scorn his social circle, though he notes that “two members of this large crowd took to politics in a serious way; one would be tortured by the police in the aftermath of the 1971 coup, and remain in prison until the 1974 amnesty; and it is likely that both of them dismissed the rest of us as ‘irresponsible, spoiled and bourgeois.’ ” Preparation for the engagement party looms for many chapters while Kemal’s enchantment with the beautiful Fusun blossoms. The shopgirl is 18 years old.

Kemal is 30, and makes what he will of their passion — the novel we are reading.
He begins to collect mementos of the affair: a hair clip, a cup Fusun touched, an earring. Much later, during their long (and explicitly unphysical) reconnection, he stows away Fusun’s cigarette stubs, a saltshaker from her dinner table, a quince grater from her kitchen. “Anyone remotely interested in the politics of civilisation,” Kemal declares early on, in a mock scholarly discourse on collecting, “will be aware that museums are the repositories of those things from which Western civilisation derives its wealth of knowledge, allowing it to rule the world, and likewise when the true collector, on whose efforts these museums depend, gathers together his first objects, he almost never asks himself what will be the ultimate fate of his hoard.”

Part of the delight in The Museum of Innocence is in scouting out the serious games, yet giving oneself over to the charms of Pamuk’s storytelling. He often makes use of genre, turns the expected response to his purpose.  Worldly engagement is of no concern to Kemal: “I have no desire to interrupt my story with descriptions of the street clashes between fervent nationalists and fervent Communists at that time, except to say what we were witnessing was an extension of the cold war.” It’s one of many denials that maintain his indifference to the political scene, and it’s in keeping with his character. A feckless soul, an aging bachelor living with his mother, he is dealt a position in a family business he barely attends to.

Meanwhile, during the years of their separation, the beautiful Fusun has married a would-be movie director. Night after night Kemal joins them at her family’s dinner table, a threesome locked in a hopeless love story. It never occurs to the constant lover that Fusun may be ordinary — much like the adored girl in Nabokov’s Lolita.

There’s not much plot to The Museum of Innocence; and why should there be, if the artist is free? Still, Pamuk comes up with a cinematic ending, easy and swift as though churned out in a Turkish B-movie.

On the last page of The Museum of Innocence, Pamuk reveals the dates of composition: 2001-2, 2003-8. The hiatus may be explained by the fact that in 2003 he published Istanbul, an autobiography overlaid with the history of his city. It tells of his mother’s discarded apartment where, as a boy, he studied, painted, read and chose, perhaps in innocence, to make his way as a writer. There was a girl who posed for him in that studio, a model quite beautiful we may imagine, preserved in memory for this enchanting story.

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