On Happiness: Notes from Pamuk

Brief reflections on reading Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence

Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence is an interesting piece of work that creatively uses the novel as a museum of stories. The novel itself which is scant on narrative but rich with life and insightful musings, spans across several years, sometimes a lifetime and even a generation. The story of Kemal who falls in love with a poor distant relation when he is already engaged to Sibel, follows one man’s obsession with love, loss and a lifetime of longing and yearning which finally result in his undoing. Yet, what in the eyes of society is a life wasted and ruined, is triumphantly countered in the end by Kemal’s assertion ‘Let everyone know I lived a very happy life.’

Through this novel, Pamuk delves upon the notion of happiness and in a strange way this happiness is so closely associated with innocence that the novel might as well have been called ‘The Museum of Happiness’ and it might not change the spirit in which the story has been told. Happiness for Pamuk is a retrospective feeling. One always realizes one was happy only when one looks back. Happiness in this sense, can never be lived in the present. And yet, when one looks back it is always through the prism of memory. Happiness and memory seem to be interlinked for Pamuk. The idea of the museum, is then a way of preserving memories through objects and their stories. These objects become portkeys (using a term from Rowling) to the past and one can re-live the emotions associated with them. The reason Kemal steals objects from the Keskin household is that he wants to preserve the time he has spent with Fusun and her family. A museum, Pamuk remarks, is the place where Time becomes Space. The objects are not only a way of preserving the past but of preserving a world into which one can escape. The museum of innocence that Kemal founds with his collection of objects through more than half a decade, create a world in which ‘the living can live with the dead.’

Pamuk interestingly uses the museum as a symbol of difference between the cultures of the East and the West. In the West, the concept of the museum is often associated with a collector’s pride in displaying his collection. In Istanbul, Kemal and other collectors like him are seen with disdain as their passions are regarded as an eccentricity that can only serve as negative examples to deter others. But Kemal decides to build a museum with the hope that he will be able to cope with the shame of collecting these objects throughout the years. It becomes a way of turning shame to a collector’s pride. It becomes an empowering act as he can finally put his story before the world.

Pamuk seems to be more of a feminist than has ever been acknowledged. In recounting the whole story from Kemal’s point of view, he reveals all the misogyny, chauvinism and hypocrisies of a privileged Istanbul male with a Western education. Through the specific male and highly biased perspective he also seems to reveal a lot more about the women characters than he would have been able to as an impersonal third person narrator. Pamuk’s women characters, both the modern Sibel and the traditional rebel Fusun are both stronger than Kemal who follows in the footsteps of his father in his obsessive love for a younger girl. While Kemal’s father wilts away his days in the memory of this girl, looking at her black and white photograph and drinking, Kemal’s story is also similar. The only thing different, as Vecihe, Kemal’s mother remarks, is that while Kemal’s father ‘did it’ quietly, Kemal’s story was fodder for gossip to everyone. One wonders how Vecihe, aware of her husband’s adultery, accepts it for the sake of keeping the family together in the eyes of the society and also still loves her husband. This is also seen in the way Kemal frequents the Keskin household in spite of Fusun being married to Feridun. Everyone knows of Kemal’s true intentions but everyone turns a blind eye and the situation becomes one in which a rich man comes to inquire about his beautiful, poor distant relation.

Fusun remains mysteriously unresolved as a character. We see her mostly through Kemal’s mind through the major part of the novel. In the beginning when Kemal has an affair with her, she is nothing more than ‘a girl who is taken advantage of.’ Kemal is perfectly happy having both, a mistress and a fiancée, at the same time. He even invites Fusun to the engagement party. His selfishness in wanting her to be close to him even as he cannot leave Sibel is likely to irk every female reader. He does not think of Fusun’s reputation or future. But in her resolute will to keep distance from Kemal and not encourage him when she is married, she becomes very much a woman of her own mind. She also punishes him by withholding from him that she found the earring he had left for her on his first visit to the Keskins after her marriage.

She never passionately proclaims her love for him, the way he always does. Her desire to become a film star and make something of her life is more important for her than a life of love. And in this desire we see her need for independence, a need that is thwarted by both Feridun and Kemal who prevent her from interacting with the ‘wretch’ of the film industry even though Fusun is clearly able to handle her share of anything in life. But it is perhaps this desperation, of not being able to achieve anything that she had wanted, of being ‘used’ by Kemal that ‘she could kill him’ and finally of not being able to hate him completely either that she deliberately rams the car to her death in an impulsive moment. Even in the moment of the crash, Kemal romanticizes the death of two lovers dying together. One wonders whether he has really ever understood Fusun. In spite of her tantrums and her moodiness, Fusun remains a character we empathize with, while Kemal although his suffering is strikingly poignant at times, remains in general ‘a sloshed lover’ who needs to be shaken out of his obsession and megalomaniac self-pity. Sibel as a character also commands admiration in the way she stays with Kemal in the hope of helping him out of his desperation. When she realizes her efforts are in vain, she has the courage to break off the engagement even as Kemal cannot. In the end, this monumental story about love, loss, innocence and happiness transcends its superficial love story of a jilted lover and comes alive in the details, in its nuances which contain the world and the human condition in its most vulnerable rawness.

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