The Museum of Innocence
The narrator of this novel, Kemal Basmaci, presents this story of a destructive love affair as though he is giving the reader a tour of a private museum that he has constructed from the detritus of the affair–cigarette butts, maps, movie posters and stills, household objects such as cups, towels, and clocks, along with maps and numerous photographs of places of Istanbul in the mid- to late 20th century. But the novel is about more than a doomed love affair–it also charts the state of upper middle-class secular Istanbul society. We hear a recording of a marketing jingle for Turkey’s first fruit-flavored soft drink. We see a collection of newspaper photos of women with black bars over their eyes and learn that in this era, photographs of women in the newspapers were nearly always connected to scandal.
After the novel was published, author Orhan Pamuk (who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006) constructed a real museum of objects mentioned in the novel. An audio guide includes reflections on what it meant to construct a museum that offers a boxed display for each of the novel’s 83 chapters (with some exceptions–the final chapters are contained in a single room, and some of the boxes are incomplete).
I was lucky enough to visit the museum in Istanbul last week (fortunately reopened following the pandemic closure), and now that I’m home, I’m reflecting on conversations and thoughts about writing. In my writing group last night, we discussed the importance of using concrete objects to anchor fiction in time and space. In Ron Carlson Writes a Story (by Ron Carlson), Carlson talks about inventory (objects) as proof. In the Museum of Innocence, Pamuk provides proof for his novel, The Museum of Innocence, while offering a fascinating twist on the expected relationship between narrative and reality: the physical museum with its concrete ‘proof’ for the narrative came into being only after Pamuk created the fictional world it portrays.