The Museum of Innocence

Orhan Pamuk's new novel is a study of obsession, a theme prone to monotony - indeed, doomed to it, unless the reader is spellbound with the same force as the protagonist, or powerfully persuaded of the protagonist's spell. The best novels about obsessive lust, such as Lolita or The End of the Affair, achieve this alliance of symptoms. There is little appeal in hearing, or reading, about someone else's obsession; however fleetingly, it must become our obsession, too.

The Museum of Innocence concerns a thoughtful man's enslavement to a bimbo, though neither the thoughtful man nor his previously thoughtful creator seems aware of this incongruence. The novel is narrated by Kemal, who recalls his life as a wealthy 30-year-old in the mid-1970s. He is engaged to the respectable Sibel but has become infatuated with his distant cousin Füsun, an 18-year-old shop assistant. While Istanbul is riven by warfare between nationalists and communists, and by conflicting responses to the spread of western freedoms, Kemal tears himself in two, dividing his attentions first between Sibel and Füsun; and then, after the end of both the engagement and the affair, between two Istanbuls - wealthy Nisantasi, where his widowed mother mourns alone, and downtrodden Çukurcuma.

Füsun lives here with her parents and her husband, Feridun, a tubby screenwriter who spots Kemal as a potential investor. For almost eight years, Kemal makes a daily chauffeured pilgrimage to dine with the Ketsins, in the hope of brushing Füsun's arm or catching her eye.

Kemal is recollecting the novel's events as the curator of a museum devoted to embalming his lust. His memoir acts both as an explanatory account of the museum's evolution and as a catalogue of its holdings. He pilfers whatever he can during his encounters with Füsun; the memorabilia at the Museum of Innocence include earrings, ticket stubs and olive pits, as well as 4,213 cigarette butts.

Fearing the evanescence of past moments, Kemal cleaves to solid sensory data. Füsun's smell is "a mixture of algae, sea, burnt caramel and children's biscuits". At one point, Kemal conflates his mental and bodily states as if the dividing line were invisibly blurred: "There was food in my stomach, sun on the back of my neck, love on my mind, panic in my soul, and an ache in my heart."

But the novel skips a crucial stage in its portrayal of his obsession. Sensory alertness is a product of interest, not its cause, and Füsun as she appears to us on the page is an implausible spur for Kemal's vividly documented devotion. The best that can be said for her is that she fulfils the western criteria for female beauty at a time when the youth of Istanbul are aspiring to western values. In his attempts to communicate Füsun's intoxicating appeal, Kemal contracts a nasty case of adjectivitis, a syndrome common among hindsight narrators wherein the sufferer uses descriptive words with lavish - and pointless - abandon.

On more than a dozen occasions, Füsun is referred to as "lovely"; with similar frequency, Kemal's feelings are "intense". (The exclamation mark is also pressed repeatedly into service - a related ailment.) Deploying a vocabulary of turbulence suggests the opposite of turbulence. A narrator who can refer to "the brute, implacable force of sexual desire" has tipped the balance between emotion and tranquillity too far in favour of the latter.

As readers of Pamuk's fiction have come to expect, Maureen Freely translates the author's reputedly sinuous Turkish into a coherent English voice. But despite her efforts, this book is a slog; its verbosity, and the enormities of its construction, might have been excused as reader-baiting of the kind associated with Borges - or perhaps, these days, Bolaño - if Pamuk displayed the slightest evidence of knowingness or playfulness. At one point, Kemal announces his intention to wrap things up "without undue delay". The book trudges on for another 40 pages.

This being a work of fiction published in the 21st century, it inevitably emerges - later rather than sooner - that Kemal is in fact a stooge, and his narration an artifice. The book hints towards a reversal of this kind in its numerous disruptions of old-fashioned readerly belief, from Kemal's habit of calling his recollections "a novel" to proleptic intrusions of the "Years later . . ." variety. And, of course, Pamuk makes an appearance, crashing those old fourth-wall certainties. The death of the author produces, in this case, a spectre at the feast: during his engagement party, Kemal observes the younger son of the tiresome Pamuk family ("the chain-smoking 23-year-old Orhan") at a nearby table, "nothing special about him beyond his pro­pensity to act nervous and impatient".

Here, Pamuk is breezily following the example of a writer who ought to be emulated with great care. The Museum of Innocence comes with a map of Istanbul and an index of characters, fake stamps of authenticity that we recognise as "Nabokovian". The Russian would grumble to learn that his hat-trick of American masterworks - Pnin, Lolita and Pale Fire - is now routinely ransacked by writers wanting to give leaden work a hint of mischief. In its less urgent manifestations, the postmodern impulse is merely a reluctance to appear naive whatever the cost - the cost being paid by the reader.

The Museum of Innocence works better as a fictional counterpart to Pamuk's recent memoir, Istanbul: Memories of a City, than as a pretender to Nabokov or a follow-up to Snow. Kemal, a narrator unfashionably capable of gratitude and wonder, notes "that familiar Istanbul smell of sea and moss, pigeon droppings, coal smoke, car exhaust and linden blossoms". And as he busies himself trying to win over Füsun, he provides on-the-hoof glimpses of the city in the cringing early days of its westward aspirations, when anyone who had studied in Paris was said to have "studied at the Sorbonne", and when the Turkish people still struggled to feel at ease wearing bathing suits.

But whenever the novel threatens to be-come illuminating or enjoyable, we are swiftly returned to Kemal's failed articulations of quenchless lust, with Istanbul, the novel's true subject, suppressed to the status of elaborate backdrop.

The Museum of Innocence
Orhan Pamuk
Faber & Faber, 536pp, £18.99

Leo Robson is lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman


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Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: the year of living dangerously