Thursday, January 14, 2010

BOOK REVIEW ... The Museum of Innocence (Faber & Faber, 2010)


Review by ABBY WONG
Orhan Pamuk
(Faber & Faber, 2010)

Dear Kemal Beh,
What a bore life must be for you since the sudden passing of your beloved Fusun. How painful it must be to have pursued her relentlessly for nine years only to see her slip away from your ardent grip again.

“What is love?” your beloved once asked. “Mine is,” you replied.

But how true is this love of yours? It’s evident that her youthful body and its unification with yours were all you yearned for. So pleasurable was your two-month fling with her that you behaved “like a child greedily gulping one sweet after another”. You wanted her despite your impending engagement to the lovely Sibel.

Are you as innocent as your creator, Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk, claims you are when he calls his story about your love affair with Fusun The Museum of Innocence?

I have my doubts. You had obviously seduced Fusun into your little lair, the apartment where your mother kept her old belongings. Among the junk and amidst the dust, you robbed her of innocence and virginity yet professed that her nascent enjoyment seemed far more feverish than yours.

In Turkey, a country where traditions perpetually wrestle with Western culture and ideas, a woman’s virtue and modesty remained highly honoured. Of all people, you, an educated young man raised in a reputable family and just 30 years old, should have respected the thinly veiled conservatism. Instead, you were beguiled by the reckless illusion of being an European and engaged in the type of sexual dalliance common only to Westerners.

But you are, after all, only what your creator Pamuk made you to be: a hapless suitor besotted by a woman you could not leave nor have. So desirous was he of your suffering that there wasn’t a page on which he did not write of your pain, shame, disappointment, worries, longing, awkwardness, loneliness, helplessness and sadness. And, finally, despite a laborious pursuit that spanned more than a decade, Pamuk, in his own dictum, denied you a happy ending.

Cruel as he may seem, your creator is a genius and a master storyteller. By prolonging your suffering, he rendered an understanding of Turkish culture in the tumultuous 1970s and 1980s for his readers.

The European-influenced lifestyles that you and your friends lead are part of the emerging modernity that, in that time, was gnawing away at centuries-old traditional mores.

The obsession with Western brands and fashion, the smuggling of alcohol, the opulent parties, the growing film industry, the gossip columns, and your father’s Chevy are all reflections of the prevalent social longing then to latch onto the West.

Yet, as your creator makes clear, all these were pretentious quests among the Istanbul elite who differed from the greater majority mired in squalor and misery. It is the materialism and moral decay of the rich that Pamuk wanted to unveil. You are merely his medium.

But Pamuk did not make you a pining and dithering lovelorn young man shorn of substance and depth. You, in the end, do emerge as a man matured by a lifelong obsession to a beautiful woman.

Wrestling between the shame of desiring to see Fusun, whom you could no longer court for she had married, and the happiness of finally seeing her made you more reserved, thoughtful, ruminative, melancholic even, but less impulsive.

And those dangerous trips that you made amid curfews from your posh neighbourhood to Fusun’s humble home in the shanty district opened your eyes—and ours—to the violence and destitution surrounding beautiful Istanbul. The nine years of having dinner in her home, watching television and making earnest conversation with her parents gave you the middle-class comforts you could not find among your own family.

And we realised that the number of things that you swiped from Fusun and her house comforted you, for they were mementoes of moments of togetherness between you and Fusun.

Can you see how lovesick you had become? But if happiness was to pursue her then pursue you must. After all, she was described as beautiful, sexy, desirable and loving. However, those qualities that you found endearing were, to me, doubtful, for Pamuk did not dwell on them in lush detail, a weakness for which he has always been criticized as a writer.

And I would have been better able to decide whether your pursuit was worth the time and a life torn asunder had Pamuk allowed the voices of Fusun, your friends and family to be heard more loudly. Somehow, even while I was whirling along with you, I could not help but miss Ka and Ipek from Snow, a story that Pamuk was able to render more beautifully.

But I do have a strange feeling that this love story of yours was the creator’s own, for only after having some personal experience could he have written a story so full of emotion.

“So tell me, have you ever been in love this way, Orhan Bey?” you asked Pamuk, who played himself as a writer commissioned to write your ill-fated story.

“Hmm … We aren’t talking about me,” Pamuk replied and fell silent.

If my suspicion is correct, then you, Kemal Bey, are the curator of a flawed love Pamuk wanted to glorify through his beautiful prose.

A Satisfied Reader

Reproduced from the Sunday Star of December 27, 2009


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