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Jumping off the Pages

People attend an exhibition the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul.

You realize that in silences
things yield and almost betray
their ultimate secrets

The catalogue for Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s newly opened Museum of Innocence begins with a Turkish translation of these lines by another Nobel laureate, the Italian Eugenio Montale. Pamuk conceived the Museum along with his eponymous 2008 book, which chronicles the protagonist Kemal Basmaci’s obsessive and doomed love for a poor distant relative Füsun Keskin. In the book, as Kemal’s obsession with Füsun grows, he seeks solace in the everyday objects that remind him of her and their time spent together. These he uses to create a museum in tribute to his love and lover.

Orhan Pamuk, Turkish novelist and Nobel laureate

The objects, things, thus, are witnesses to the love story between Kemal and Füsun even in its hidden, furtive form – their secret trysts, the fights, the waiting, the sharing of long languorous meals and conversations. But beyond that, they stand in as representatives of the daily life of Istanbul, spanning half a century from the 1950s and offering a window on the mundane, often forgotten past of the city. In this sense, the museum is only the latest facet in which Pamuk continues his efforts to preserve the memory of the Istanbul of his youth, a preoccupation that is plain for all to see in his written works Istanbul: Memories and the City, The Black Book as well as The Museum of Innocence.

Single moments of time

The museum, a four-storied house with deep red exteriors, is housed in the European neighbourhood of Çukurcuma. In the novel, the love story shuffles between the rich bourgeoisie neighbourhood of Nişantaşı and the more impoverished and shady Çukurcuma, where the Keskin family stays. The building that houses the museum is purportedly the Keskin family home, bought by a grieving Kemal with the aim of turning it into a shrine for his beloved. These days, Çukurcuma, a neighbourhood known for its antique stores, is a fast gentrifying neighbourhood – a force which the presence of the museum will no doubt only contribute to. Walking into the museum, which is heavy on atmosphere, is akin to walking into a lovingly and carefully preserved vignette of the past from the fast-changing Istanbul of today.

Unsurprisingly, the concept of time plays an important role in both the book and the museum. In the book Pamuk writes:

In Physics Aristotle make a distinction between Time and the single moments he describes as the “present”. Single moments are – like Aristotle’s atoms – indivisible, unbreakable things. But Time is the line that links these indivisible moments. … As we get older and come to the painful realization that this line per se has no real meaning – a sense that comes to us cumulatively in intimations we struggle to ignore – we are brought to sorrow. But sometimes these moments we call the “present” can bring us enough happiness to last a century, as they did if Fusun smiled…

Through the displays of its eighty three vitrines (each corresponding to a chapter in the book), the museum recreates these indivisible moments. Just as Time is created by single moments, the story of the book, and even Istanbul’s recent past, is created by linking together these objects that signify an individual moment.

The museum is filled with clocks, but the other thing that struck me walking through it was the centrality of food and drink. There are representations of meals had at restaurants together, picnics, meetings over tea and coffee. Displays show salt and pepper shakers, tulip-shaped tea cups and cups of Turkish coffee, wine, liquor and rakı bottles. And there are all sorts of food – cheeses, tomatoes, varieties of börek, mussels, fish. Kemal says he had 1,593 meals at Füsun’s house. If each one of us thinks of our own memories, how often are the deepest, most vivid ones of times spent during communal meals or languorous evenings where time slid slowly over a meal or drink?

The anthropology of experience

There is an anthropological quality to the museum, not just in the collection of objects, but also the film reels that run on endless loops and the emotions the museum creates. One reel follows the movements of a woman’s hand as she smokes a cigarette. The nearby exhibit, situated at the entrance of the museum, is deeply striking. On display are 4,213 of Füsun’s cigarette stubs ferried away by Kemal. Written, in Pamuk’s hand, under each stub is the thought on Kemal’s mind at the moment he furtively stole the stub.

The shapes of the stubs call back to Füsun:

Sometimes she would stub it out with evident anger, sometimes with impatience… Some days she would put out her cigarette against the surface of the ashtray with a series of short, insistent taps. … This variety of methods ensured that every cigarette to leave her hand had its special shape and its own soul.

But there is more to them than that. Kemal says he has become the “anthropologist of my own experience”, but just like the concept of time, this anthropology too is reflective of the city. In a way the display is a wonderful melding of the personal (‘I am not a bad person’) with the broader memory of events in the life of the city. ‘Earthquake!’ the inscription below one, made me smile as I imagined a love-struck Kemal desperately stealing yet another cigarette stub amidst the tremors of those earthquakes this city is so prone to.

Artifacts from the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul.

A constant theme of Pamuk’s work has been Turkey’s ambivalent relationship with the notion of modernity. In the Museum of Innocence, Pamuk explores this theme through the idea of sexual freedom, unveiling all the hypocrisies that come bundled with that idea. The notion of virginity and sexual innocence is one that runs throughout the book. One vitrine shows reams of photographs of women with black bands over their eyes in an attempt to recreate the images that newspapers of the time would run when writing not only about rape victims or adulteresses but even young girls under 18 who had ‘given themselves’ to a man before marriage and whose family had taken the man to court to make him marry the girl.

Reading a newspaper was like “wandering through a masquerade” writes Pamuk. By placing black bands over photographs of women from the era in which the book is set, Pamuk is not only mimicking those newspapers, but also seems to be asking who were the women who didn’t engage in sexual intercourse? And who didn’t suffer some sort of sexual violence as the so-called liberated and traditional notions of sexuality collided?

Fact and Fiction

In the book, Kemal, who has decided to build a museum shrine, asks “the esteemed Orhan Pamuk” to help him tell his story. It’s a postmodern twist typical of the writer.

Hearing Pamuk speak at a symposium on the opening of the museum about his visits to thousands of museums and obsessive collecting of objects from the time, I was left wondering if he had morphed into Kemal, or if indeed there was any difference between them. The museum itself blends the line between fiction and reality. A display shows the ID cards of the employees of the family firm Saat Saat. Who are these people, you wonder. And where did they actually work? Another shows bottles and advertisements for the fictional Meltem fruit cola. Another showcases the Jenny Colon bag that sets in motion Kemal’s doomed affair with Füsun. The brand maybe fictitious, but the bag is very real.

A number of the object and photographs that are used in the display come from Pamuk’s personal collection. One wonders which ones they are as Pamuk’s own personal memories and history meld with those of his characters and his city. Other things were acquired from private collections, antique shops and junk sellers. In recreating the story of Kemal and Füsun, the museum also brings us glimpses of other nameless people whose stories we can’t help speculate about.

During my visit to the museum a young lady in front of me stopped in front of each exhibit with serious determination and flicked between a copy of the book she was holding and the display. I had gone book-less. In many ways I felt the museum complemented and even completed the book. I had not enjoyed the book as much as I had other works by Pamuk, but the museum re-called to me a number of incidents that I had forgotten or not paid as much attention to, whilst reminding me how good the good bits of it were.

Pamuk has gone on record to say that he believes that one does not need to have read the book to visit and enjoy the museum. The museum does more than just explain the book or point to episodes from it – the two projects are deeply intertwined, but also exist independently. Loyal Pamuk readers will note that the atmosphere of the book and even specific events and places – a fire on the Bosphorous when two tankers collide, Alaadin’s shop, Pamuk apartments, the Bosphorous yalıs, the backstreets of Beyoğlu – have been a feature of his previous books as well.

The museum took Pamuk the better part of fifteen years to complete. Along with the bureaucratic difficulties involved – getting this paper from here, that from there, papers to sell tickets etc. – there were also political disruptions in the form of court cases when he was famously charged with ‘insulting Turkishness’ Which was followed by his semi-exile from Istanbul.

When asked at the symposium why he wanted to make the museum, Pamuk replied ‘I don’t know. And I don’t want to know.’ He says the idea came to him and rather than question it, he wanted to pursue it and let it take on its own shape. It’s a tribute to his doggedness that the project – despite delays and setbacks – is now a reality. With this quirky little museum, Pamuk has become the preeminent hoarder of Istanbul’s memories, not just in words, but also in objects.

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Vedica Kant
Vedica Kant is a graduate of the Singapore Management University in Economics and Political Science. She received her master's degree in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Oxford. She currently lives and works in Istanbul.

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