Orhan Pamuk
translated by Maureen Freely
Knopf ($28.95)
by Joshua Willey

“Real museums are places where Time is transformed into Space.” So Kemel, the narrator of Orhan Pamuk’s new novel The Museum of Innocence, tells the author, who characteristically shows up in the work’s final sequence to explain his own relationship to his subjects. Kemel’s sentiment strikes at the heart of Pamuk’s project. We need not feel enslaved to the clock or the calendar, because with the assistance of a few carefully chosen objects and a clean, well-lighted place, we can indeed time travel.

Pamuk gained international stardom and a Nobel Prize for articulating the dissonance between traditional Islamic society and the pluralism of the modern West in terms both more accessible and more intimate than most readers had encountered. Istanbul, his axis mundi, is indeed an appropriate setting for such endeavors, as it has witnessed, perhaps more than any city, the simultaneous inextricability and incompatibility of the divergent forms of life. In this novel, however, Pamuk leaves behind the overtly political content of works like Snow and the historicism of The White Castle in favor of something Proustian, psychological, and even romantic.

Kemel’s city is one in which streets, buildings, kitchenware, toys, jewelry, even cigarette butts possess a nearly numinous transcendental power. Objects are so deeply invested with pathos because they have been touched by a love so powerful it shines with a light brighter than any other in the world: Kemel’s love for Füsun. It is a love story, at least structurally, but only to the extent that, say, the Chinese classicDream of the Red Chamber is a love story. In truth it is an elegy to the power of things, to the potential for even the most mundane minutia to be imbued with an otherworldly significance if regarded in the proper light.

For Kemel, that light is the light of leisure. Kemel is one of the richest men in Istanbul, and at times The Museum of Innocence takes the tone of a novel of manners. Though it will likely not be considered as important as Snow because of its esoteric subject and socio-economic setting, it is perhaps Pamuk’s finest work to date; much praise is also due to Maureen Freely, who translates the Turkish into an English as readable as it is lyrical. The novel has something in common with Nabokov’s Ada in its emphasis on lyricism, forbidden love, and characters for whom money grows on trees. Political arguments aside, what Nabokov and Pamuk manage to do by creating hyper-romantic worlds without economic concern is to formulate a realm of pure sentiment, in which detail is allowed the space to flourish until it morphs into something deeply meaningful and transcendental.

The novel is a stunning depiction of one of the world’s great cities through the eyes of excess, but by unleashing the mystical power of the commonplace as Pamuk does, he expands his message to be as readily understandable to street sweepers as sultans. It is as though he unveils a secret life we can live if only we pay enough attention. At times, this life is heartbreakingly sad; its story is one of being good, and doing right, but existing outside of God’s way, or against the tide of circumstance, and thus failing. But ultimately, Kemel’s world is one possessed of infinite portals to the sweep and grandeur of the ages—so ultimately he, like us, must rejoice.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010