Friday, April 12, 2013

Reflections: The Museum of Innocence

Kemal is a young and wealthy Turkish man educated in the West.  He is soon to be engaged to Sibel, another wealthy and westernized young woman wholly in love with Kemal. But when Kemal chances on Füsun, a poor distant relative, he is hopelessly attracted to her. The two begin an affair that soon escalates into something far more serious and destructive than they could ever imagine. Through a detailed narrative of Kemal’s relationships with Füsun, Sibel, his family and friends, Pamuk lays out a comprehensive account on the nature of love, romance, and relationships in Turkey’s patriarchal society.

Obsessions are comforting in some ways. The regularity of faithfully doing something with a mixture of helplessness and dogged determination, oddly enough, imparts a higher meaning to those lives that struggle to anchor onto something. It sometimes elevates the otherwise mundane and unimpressive qualities into something profound and sublime. And that is essentially what happens with Kemal’s life story. It is a story that is at once supremely shallow, indulgent, careless, and annoying as it is profound, romantic, idealistic, and heart-tugging because of how an obsession is portrayed. That a book can evoke and convey such contrasts and ironies from one simple story is testament to the writing and story-telling prowess of the author. With an astounding sense of perspicacity, Orhan Pamuk meticulously pieces together Kemal’s thoughts and feelings, drawing a portrait that is incredibly detailed and true to reality. Every simple element of human interaction is zoomed in and presented through a micro-analytic lens that helps the reader vividly recreate the atmosphere and characters in Turkey. Sometimes, this microscopic narrative does teeter on the edge of becoming mundane and boring, but the narrative is well paced and keeps you engaged. For example, you wouldn’t realize that you just read several pages of text on how Füsun smokes her cigarette. The writing helps with this as well, for it is unpretentiously smart and lucid, so at least it saves you from rereading overloaded sentences. The story, if one can call that, does crawl at a snail’s pace, but it is not frustrating to read Pamuk’s abundantly rich prose on the subtle and intimate aspects of Turkish culture. And since I love books on culture that are woven around a simple story, the long book was engaging to me.

Kemal’s story is a vehicle through which Orhan Pamuk illustrates the dynamics, ideals, and values that shape Turkey’s society, specifically in regards to its attitudes towards men and women. He explains to the reader almost every relevant detail and minutia about the strongly patriarchal culture that struggles to fully embrace certain western ideals whilst holding onto conservative standards on women, notions of propriety, and class-distinctions. What amazed me (I don’t know why it should amaze me) is how identical (well, almost) Turkish society is to Indian society! I could relate to everything the women were going through - the taboos, the prejudices, the subtle mistreatments, the constant reminder of being secondary, the hypocrisy, and how everything comes together to unnecessarily complicate people’s lives. The dynamics between people in a Turkish household is also quite similar to an Indian household, right down to the nosy and gossiping neighbors. It surprised me that even the descriptions of Turkish movies – the stories, the workings of the industry, etc., were exactly like ours! The book also brings to light the all too familiar clash of Western ideals against traditions and socially-conditioned values that are so deeply ingrained, to some measure, in everyone – wealthy, educated, progressive or otherwise. And just as how being educated is different from being literate, the story subtly shows that being “westernized” is different from being truly progressive. But these aspects are Pamuk’s secondary deviations and observations. In this story, he primarily describes the nature of romantic relationships, some of which are universally true and generalizable, and some are specific to Turkish society. There are aspects that everyone can relate to, because that’s how thorough and all-encompassing the narrative is, spanning the entire depth and breadth of what it means to be romantically involved, especially if that relationship is forbidden, elusive, or out of reach.

As the narrator/author often alludes, this is more of an anthropological account of a lovelorn Turkish man in the 1970s, 1980s of Turkey, than a page-turner of a story. But through this subject, Orhan Pamuk delivers a richly ethnographic account of Turkey’s socio-cultural framework. It is an interesting book, for Pamuk’s keen sense of observation and insight makes it an intelligent read. As always, the nuanced writing and insightful portrayal of a culture makes all the difference to an otherwise simple story.

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