This Summer I visited the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul. It was a challenge with all the paving of the roads. I thought I had read the book (I had actually come half way and quit) and tried to remember the story as I walked through the museum. Not all of it came back, given that I had not finished it the first time, so I went back and started reading it again. I would definitely recommend reading the book first. The book comes with a museum ticket so don’t forget to take your book on your visit. You may also want to reread some parts as you sit among the collections.
Basic plot: The rich upper middle/high class Kemal falls for a very young and distant (and poor) relative Füsun while he is about to be engaged to the “perfect girl” Sibel. He keeps seeing Füsun until the engagement.
If the lycee teachers studying this book in their class are now beginning to get nervous, they can advise the students to skip this page. If there are visitors to my museum who wish to know more, I would suggest they kindly cast their eyes on the furnishings; the scene will be enough to make them understand that what I had to do I did first and foremost for Füsun, looking at me with such frightened and sorrowful eyes, and second for our common good, and only after all these imperatives were satisfied, just a little for my own pleasure.
He invites her and her family to the engagement party and keeps seeing her after he is engaged to be married. Eventually, he will drift into a life separate from his social circle and spend his time with Füsun’s family even after they separate. The museum is the recreation of his obsession with her. The story is slow – the book is 516 pages in the current Turkish edition, 728 pages in the English paperback edition I have, and took Pamuk more than six years to write. With that length, it is still interesting to read all the descriptions of a time in Istanbul, of its people and lives, the changes that occur. The time coincides (almost) with my childhood and I remember most of what he talks about either personally or from the Turkish movies I loved watching.
When you read the book you feel walking through the neighborhood or sitting at the restaurant, especially if you already have been to the same or similar places. Istanbul and the lives of people living there is at the center of the novel. That is why I love it so much. One place stood out in particular for me. The engagement of Kemal and Sibel takes place at the Hilton Hotel in Istanbul. Built in 1955, for years it was the only modern/American place people went to. Kemal is from my parents’ generation he mentions that he was ten when Hilton Istanbul opened, making him just two years older than them. Hilton was a Istanbul icon for years.
In those years so many Western innovations made their first appearance in this hotel that the leading newspapers even posted reporters there. If one of my mother’s favorite suits got stained, she would send it to the dry cleaner at the Hilton, and she liked to drink
tea with her friends at the patisserie in the lobby, Quite a few of my friends and relatives had their weddings in the grand ballroom on the lower level…And it enjoyed one other distinction: The Hilton had been, since the day it opened, one of the few establishments in Turkey where a well-heeled gentleman and a courageous lady could obtain a room without being asked for a marriage certificate.
Coincidentally, my parents’ engagement was also there although my mom’s family had more modest means than Kemal’s. The photograph is of the newspaper clipping my mother kept. Years later my father would take me there after a dreaded doctor’s appointment to eat green cocktail olives which I loved (the ones we had for breakfast were smaller and darker so these were really special) while he had a drink.
Kemal’s car, the Chevrolet is one of the main characters, together with its rather quiet driver Çetin. He is the guardian angel who watches over Kemal after his father’s death. Although he is with Kemal everyday, we don’t know him at all. The story taking place in the seventies and eighties, there is much sexism. Füsun’s life “being ruined” by her early affair with Kemal is part of the main story, of course. One point where the sexism is prominent is the story of Füsun getting a driver’s licence. In those times it was rare for women to drive. My aunt was the only woman I knew who drove in the seventies. She had a bright red car. My mother started driving much later when we moved away from her work and she started her cross-Continental commute as many Istanbulites regularly do. The driver’s licence tests were difficult with too many technical questions about the engine and the mechanics, the driving tests even more brutal. In the story, Füsun passes the difficult written exam, but fails the driving test several times.
Füsun did not pass her second test either. This time they set her the very difficult task of maneuvering into an imaginary parking space while driving up a hill in reverse. When she made the Chevrolet tremble and judder again, they ordered her out of the car in the same humiliating way.
I had been watching from a distance with a mixed crowd of retired policemen, applicants, letter writers, teaboys, and various gawkers; when one of the saw a bespectacled examiner once again take the wheel from Füsun, he said, “They flunked that chick,” and a couple of other laughed.
But her lessons with Kemal in the Chevrolet give them an excuse to be alone, the only times the two are alone and out in the city. They are also the rare times the two are together after their break up. Driving around used to be a thing in Istanbul. You would take the car and go to the Bosporus. Now traffic makes that an unlikely entertainment. I stopped driving in Istanbul about five years ago. I drive in Turkey a lot, but not in Istanbul. I would rather be looking around than worrying about traffic and parking.
The most impressive descriptions are from the living room of Füsun’s family where Kemal visits regularly covering almost half the book. The food, table settings, television news, conversations, classical politeness remarks, conversation’s filler words and sentences, remarks, smoking, home decor, the changing times, especially the military coup of 1980 all come alive in that living room. It is such a beautiful description of everyday life inside an Istanbul home.
I sat across from the television, which was slightly to my left, and with the kitchen just to my right. Behind me was a sideboard, and sometimes, if I tipped my chair, I would knock against it. Then the crystal glasses inside would shudder along with the porcelain and the silver sugar bowls, the liqueur sets, the never-used coffee cups, the old clock, the silver lighter that no longer worked, the little glass vase with the spiraling floral pattern whose likenesses one could see displayed on the buffet of any middle-class family in the city, other ornamental pieces, and finally the buffet’s glass shelves.
If you ever want to or have to live in Istanbul and you have the means, you should do so in a yalı, a house by the Bosporus. The strait is like the central park of the city with clean air and constant breeze. The view is, well, of Istanbul. And you live by the water which is a pleasure in almost any part of the world. You can brag about being on the edge of one continent looking onto the other. If you are a good swimmer, really careful and are not a hygiene-freak, you can occasionally swim. You can wave to the boats, trying to catch your dinner or just hang out by the water. Kemal moves into one with his fiance Sibel to forget about Füsun.
As we sat at the bay window overlooking the water, eating our evening meal like a couple who were able to live on nothing but love, The City Line ferry named Kalender would leave the Anadoluhisarı landing stage, and there at the wheel we would see the mustached captain with his cap; so close that he could see the crackling mackerel at our table, and the eggplant puree and fritters, the white cheese. the melon and rakı, he would cry, “Good appetite,” which Sibel took for yet another charming bond to advance my cure and make us happy.
The museum has many objects collected by Pamuk, some from hoarders. There are displays for the chapters like the one for Chapter 40. One of the most interesting displays is at the entrance, composing of 4213 cigarette butts (Chapter 68). Made me wonder if I had smoked that many in my life.
Reading Pamuk is a must before visiting İstanbul and reading the book is a must before you visit the museum.