four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
44-Jan-Feb-2010
By: 
Orhan Pamuk
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A-The Museum of InnocenceIn 2006, Orhan Pamuk became the first Turkish citizen to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is the best-selling author of My Name Is Red (2001), Snow ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2004), Other Colors ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2008), and Istanbul ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection Sept/Oct 2008).

The Story: In 1975, 30-year-old businessman Kemal falls deeply in love with the much younger Füsun. It does not matter that she is a poor shopgirl and a distant relative or that he is already engaged to marry the beautiful and accomplished Sibel. For the next three decades, Kemal tries to recapture the emotions of that brief affair, which he belatedly realizes marked the happiest time of his life. Set in Pamuk's native city of Istanbul, The Museum of Innocence explores one man's downward spiral as his obsession with one woman threatens to consume him.
Knopf. 535 pages. $28.95. ISBN: 9780307266767

Los Angeles Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The Museum of Innocence deeply and compellingly explores the interplay between erotic obsession and sentimentality--and never once slips into the sentimental. There is a master at work in this book." Tim Rutten

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Masterfully translated, spellbindingly told, it is resounding confirmation that Orhan Pamuk is one of the great novelists of his generation. With this book, he literally puts love into our hands." Marie Arana

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Our guide into The Museum of Innocence is a liar, a drunk, a kleptomaniac and a spoiled Istanbul society boy named Kemal Basmaci. Yet I could hardly wait for his dissolute company." Karen R. Long

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"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. ... Kemal's dogged endurance may try our patience, though his dead-end accounting provides a bleak comedy." Maureen Howard

Miami Herald 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The wistfulness simultaneously accounts for the novel's principal weakness. ... While some readers might appreciate the rueful nostalgia, the absence of any real urgency to the narrative renders The Museum of Innocence plodding." Andrew Furman

Critical Summary

Turkey's most prominent and best-selling novelist, Orhan Pamuk is the rare author who creates highly literary works that also enjoy popular appeal. The Museum of Innocence is no exception. Critics described it as a beautiful, moving love story--not only between Kemal and Füsun but also between Pamuk and his beloved Istanbul. And while the critic from the Cleveland Plain Dealer found Kemal's long-term devotion tedious at times, she also called the story "surprising" and "moving." The major complaint came from the Miami Herald, which cited a lack of momentum and of appealing characters. But without question, fans of star-crossed lovers and exotic locales will find much to delight in here.

Also by the Author

Istanbul Memories and the City (2008): Pamuk parallels painful, life-changing events in his younger days with those of his home, Istanbul.

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

1. How do modern European culture and Turkish tradition affect the attitudes and actions of the novel’s characters? Are the tensions between both societies reconciled or accommodated?
2. On page 37, Kemal states that his parents were not religious yet they retained many religious customs and traditions. What role does religion play in the novel? In Pico Iyer’s laudatory review in The New York Review of Books, he writes that “As in [Pamuk’s memoir] Istanbul, though even more so, memory becomes a kind of religion, and there is a sense, following Proust, that les vrais paradis sont les paradis qu'on a perdus” (true paradise is the paradise one has lost). What do you think Iyer means? Do you agree with Marcel Proust?
3. What does Chapter 15, “A Few Unpalatable Anthropological Truths,” reveal about sexuality in modern Turkey? How are those “truths” reflected elsewhere in the novel? How might your own cultural assumptions about gender and sexuality influence your views on the behavior of Sibel, Füsun or Kemal?
4. At one point, Kemal reflects on his relationship to Füsun: “Did the pleasure of satisfying evergreen desire give birth to love, or was this sentiment born of, and nurtured by, other things as well?” (p. 54). How might you answer that?
5. Consider the following statements by Kemal: “In fact no one recognizes the happiest moment of their lives as they are living it” (p. 72) and “Now, all these years later, I think that the best way to preserve happiness may be not to recognize it for what it is” (p. 98). Are these two statements contradictory? Do you agree with either?
6. On page 157, Kemal tells of “the astonishing powers of consolation that objects held,” and, on page 73, says that “mementos preserve the colors, textures, images, and delights as they were more faithfully, in fact, than can those who accompanied us through those moments.” How are these notions expressed throughout the novel? Do you share Kemal’s beliefs regarding objects and mementos?
7. What do you think Kemal means when he states, on page 102, that “the gap between compassion and surrender is love’s darkest, deepest region”? What is that “gap”? How are the concepts of the “gap” and “the cleft between the felt and the imagined” (p. 347) represented in the novel?
8. On page 113, Berrin tells Kemal that a “girl with brains doesn’t judge a man by the way he thinks. She looks at his family, at the way he deports himself.” What does this comment reveal about Berrin and his class? Where else is this idea reflected in the novel?
9. How are political events within Turkey from the 1970s and 1980s integrated into the novel? Do the characters address the political turmoil surrounding them? In his portrayal of the characters’ relation to current events, what might Pamuk be saying about them and their society?
10. On page 176, Pamuk writes, “Sibel, with the felicitous intuition so prevalent in the bourgeoisies of non-Western countries, and most particularly Muslim countries, saw psychoanalysis as a ‘scientific sharing of confidences’ invented for Westerners unaccustomed to the curative traditions of family solidarity and shared secrets.” What do you think of that quote? How might it explain Sibel or other characters’ behavior?
11. Is the change of Füsun’s hair color from blond to black significant? How might these two representations of Füsun symbolize the tendencies and paradoxes of modern Turkey?
12. On page 219, Sibel says: “The art of love is in finding a balance of equals . . . If you ask me, being cultured and civilized is not about everyone being free and equal; it’s about everyone being refined enough to act as if they were. Then no one has to feel guilty.” What do you think she means? Do you agree? How might Sibel’s definition of “equal” compare with your own?
13. On page 302, Kemal realizes “that the longing for art, like the longing for love, is a malady that blinds us, and makes us forget the things we already know, obscuring reality.” How is Pamuk’s writing of The Museum of Innocence both a reflection and realization of that belief? Consider Chapter 52, “A Film About Life and Agony Should Be Sincere,” and Füsun’s later interest in painting birds. How might Pamuk’s depiction of film and the visual arts function as metaphors for the characters’ shifting circumstances and inner lives?
14. Review Chapter 54, “Time,” and Chapter 62, “To Help Pass the Time,” in the context of the rest of the story. How would you describe the novel’s notion of time? Is it realistic? Metaphoric? Philosophic? Did the book make you think differently about time?
15. In 2005, Pamuk spoke to the Swiss press about the Turkish killings of Kurds and Armenians, for which he was subsequently charged by Turkey with “insulting national character.” Although the charges were later dropped, how might Chapter 59, “Getting Past the Censors,” be both a satire and a commentary on Pamuk’s experience with Turkish authorities?
16. Consider the following statement by Kemal: “In those days I’d ceased to think of my life as something I lived in wakeful consciousness of what I was doing: I’d begun instead to think of it as something imagined, something—just like love—that issued from my dreams, and as I had no wish either to fight my growing pessimism about the world or to surrender myself to it unconditionally, I acted as if no such thoughts had entered my mind” (p. 420). What does Kemal’s admission reveal about him? About his relationship to Füsun? How are Kemal’s concepts of the “real” and the “imaginary” reflected thematically and stylistically throughout the novel?
17. In Chapter 82, “Collectors,” Pamuk playfully explores the social and psychological contexts of collecting. Why might there be a sense of shame attached to collecting? How do you distinguish between a collector and a hoarder? Do you collect anything? If so, what do you think drives your passion?
18. In the novel’s final chapter, “Happiness,” Kemal says: “With my museum I want to teach not just the Turkish people but all the people of the world to take pride in the lives they live. I’ve traveled all over, and I’ve seen it with my own eyes: While the West takes pride in itself, most of the rest of the world lives in shame. But if the objects that bring us shame are displayed in a museum, they are immediately transformed into possessions in which to take pride” (p. 518). How do you interpret this passage? Does The Museum of Innocence accomplish Kemal’s goal? What do shame and pride have to do with a museum?
19. How do you understand Kemal’s claim that “As visitors admire the objects and honor the memory of Füsun and Kemal, with due reverence, they will understand that . . . this is not simply a story of lovers, but of the entire realm, that is, of Istanbul” (p. 524)? How might this assertion be true?
20. To what do you think the “innocence” of the title refers? Considering page 124 and the final chapter, “Happiness,” how do Orhan and Kemal’s perceptions of Füsun compare? Does your perception of Füsun differ from theirs? What do you think of Kemal’s final words of the novel?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.