The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

Several years ago a neighbour gave me a bag of books, all of which I immediately discarded except this. It sat on my to read shelf for a year or so, until a long haul voyage, even worse, a long haul voyage with flu, was about to happen. Wondering what was possessing me, I put this in my bag. Now or never. Worst case it would find a new home in Australia. Best….

Well, best, it turned out, was amazing. Despite having the flu, despite seats right next to the toilet (really disgusting, just don’t do it), I couldn’t put down this book. It is a fascinating account of Istanbul in the fifties through seventies and worth reading just for that. A small, but topical aside, is the reminder that Islamic terrorism against Westernisation has always existed. It is part of the backdrop of this story. It means physical danger, it means for women, harassment as they try to shake off oppression. It is about the divide that people on social media would have you think is new: urban vs rural, when it has always been there. How could one think otherwise?

There is graphic detail here of simple things like how it was going to the cinema – Pamuk is willing to lavish any number of words to paint his pictures. Minimalist he is not. But extravagantly sitting over all this is the story. The story of how a sexist wealthy Turk in the normal course of affairs thinking that he could have a wife on the one hand and his love on the other, discovers that he can’t. He is split asunder and suffers such pain when he realises his terrible mistake that he is willing to surrender the rest of his life to trying to fix the situation, turn back the clock, and pick his mistress for his wife. She, meanwhile, has married lovelessly, the whole thing is senseless pain and anguish and a knot in your stomach for God knows, hundreds and hundreds of pages.

Our protagonist spends years haunting the life of his true love. He quickly rejects all normal life, the casually wealthy life he had known before. He spends his time curled up, consumed by what he has done, what he remembers of happiness, how to get that back. He will never be careless with life again. He collects things to make his museum of innocence. Little pieces of his love. A strand of hair might be an exhibit. A used teabag, her teabag. I guess to some people this will just sound creepy but to others it won’t. If you have your own museum of innocence, you will slip into his place and feel every bit of his anguish. I have one – not that I knew what it was  until I read the book. But I have a glasses case which has such an exhibit in it. Occasionally I pick it up to put my glasses in it and there it is, forgotten for a while, but with the power to move some part of you inside so that it feels like it could break.

I will not go into the incredible detail of how he inveigles his way into the lives of his true love, her husband, her parents. His patience, his attempts to manipulate things to his advantage, the promises he isn’t going to keep that will turn her just a little his way.

Arrgghhhhhhh. I know this all sounds awful!!! It is awful! But it is also deeply moving and entirely believable and I dare you not to be on his side, barracking for him all the way.

I did give the book away to a friend in Australia, but only because I decided I loved it so much I had to buy a hard cover copy of it. It sits on the shelf and somehow The Museum of Innocence has become a museum of innocence for me.

Five stars.





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