Pamuk’s Latest, a Leisurely Meditation on Love, Time, Memory, Loss and Obsession


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By Daphne Abeel
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

Don’t be in a hurry to finish Orhan Pamuk’s new novel. It moves slowly and it is meant to be read slowly. After all, according to the author, it took him 10 years to write.

The plot is simple — a 30-year-old wealthy businessman, Kemal, is engaged to marry, Sibel. It is an appropriate match — she is a
beautiful girl from his social circle, but he happens to visit a shop to buy her a handbag she fancies, and finds himself falling madly in
love with Fusun Keskin, an impoverished 18-year-old shop girl who happens to be a distant relative.

Thereafter, in the grips of his obsessive love, he breaks off his engagement to Sibel nearly ruins his business life, becomes a heavy
drinker and a kleptomaniac. The bulk of the novel describes the many years he spends yearning after his beloved, visiting her, her husband and her family in a desperate effort to remain close to her, in the hope that she may, one day, be free to marry him.

In the course of their affair, first conducted in a shabby apartment belonging to his mother, and his later obsessive visits to the
Keskins’ apartment, he collects numerous objects and mementos of their relationship out of which he will eventually create his “Museum of Innocence.”

Obsessive love between older men and young women and collecting are subjects that have attracted other accomplished novelists. Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Lolita, created a storm when it was first published in 1955. It, too, was the story of an older man, obsessed with a young girl, but in Nabokov’s tale, the age difference was greater, which made it shocking. And Nabokov’s couple went on the lam, whereas Pamuk’s characters conduct their relationship in the very midst of the society of which they are a part. Some readers may also recall the work of the English novelist, John Fowles, The Collector (1963), which tells the story of a lonely butterfly collector who imprisons a young woman with whom he has fallen in love. Are Fusun’s butterfly earrings perhaps an echo of this earlier fiction? And of course, Nabokov was an enthusiastic lepidopterist.

Pamuk’s novel takes on the issue of sex before marriage and especially the subject of a young woman’s virginity. Fusun is a virgin when she gives herself to Kemal, whereas Sibel, who has studied in Paris, is not, but because she comes from the upper class and is engaged to Kemal, she basically escapes censure.

Although the surface of the novel deals with the love story, Pamuk subtly interweaves the warp of deeper concerns and themes through the woof of the novel. His canvas is the ever-changing city of Istanbul, which he knows and loves so well. Over the eight or so years of the story’s time line (1975-1984), fashions change, buildings are torn down, parking lots and commercial buildings replace the old apartments, and there are military coups. People die in the streets, there are assassinations, although these events are noted at a distance by Kemal, who travels always in a chauffeured car, protected by his position as the scion of an old, respected and wealthy family.

As Kemal himself acknowledges, the act of collecting can be seen as an attempt to stop the passage of time by preserving objects that trigger memory. As Kemal becomes more and more desperate, he absconds with more and more objects from the Keskins’ shabby apartment, the china dogs that sit on top of the television, cigarette butts, thimbles and other flotsam and jetsam. His visits there take him from Nisantasi, the comfortable, affluent district where his family has always lived, to a far shabbier, darker world. The description of Kemal’s cataloguing of Fusun’s discarded cigarette butts, which he carefully labels and dates, verges on an anatomy of true mania.

Fusun has married a young, fattish aspiring film director, Feridun, and Pamuk spends a good part of the novel, describing the fledgling auteur’s efforts to produce a film that will pass the censors and star his beautiful wife. Because there are many, many subjects which the Turkish government considers unfit as subjects of films — including the Armenians — although Kemal provides financial backing for the film, it is never made.

One of the most poignant images in the novel is that of Lemon, the Keskins’ canary, “aging slowly” in his cage, a symbol, perhaps, of all of Turkish society, imprisoned in its limitations, its restrictive laws, unable to change as the years pass by.

Once again, as he did in his previous novel, Snow, Pamuk makes a bow to the influence of the Czech writer, Franz Kafka. Kemal would seem to be the fictive cousin of Ka, the protagonist of Snow, who, in turn, is related to K of Kafka’s The Castle. Pamuk also makes use of the notion of the doppelganger (German for double or shadow walker) by bringing himself, Orhan Pamuk, into the novel as a character who agrees to tell Kemal’s story.

Kemal’s efforts to build a monument to Fusun are parallel to his drive to preserve the Istanbul he has known that is melting away with every passing year.

It would be unfair to reveal the denouement of the story to the reader, but as the book opens with Kemal’s declaration, “it was the
happiest day of my life…” when he first makes love to Fusun, it closes with perhaps the saddest sentence in the book as Kemal insists
to his alter ego, Pamuk, that he has led “a happy life.”

There are striking parallels between the life of Kemal and the life of his creator, Orhan Pamuk. But as he said to a writer for the New York Times, who visited the museum he has created in Istanbul, “No, I am not Kemal, but I cannot convince you that I am not Kemal. That is being a novelist.”*

And the meaning of this novel? Perhaps it is that love endures, even in the face of devastating loss and that although we know,
consciously, that we cannot stop the passage of time and the journey towards death, we nevertheless strive to create monuments (novels, museums) to celebrate the mystery that is life. Although this is, in many respects, a very sad book, its underlying message is one of optimism.

This week, Pamuk concluded his series of Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University on “The Naive and Sentimental Novel.” He has been living, recently, in the United States, and it is somewhat unclear whether he can return to Turkey where he was indicted, in 2005, under Article 301 of the Turkish Criminal Code, for “insulting Turkishness” because in an interview he mentioned the Armenian Genocide and the massacre of the Kurds. Others, such as the assassinated journalist, Hrant Dink, a friend of Pamuk’s, have paid the ultimate price for their acknowledgment of the Genocide.

It would not be a surprise if his next work were conceived from the point of view of exile, which would be a novelty for the Nobel Prize winner, who so far has written so astutely and poignantly from and about his native Turkey.

*“The Objects of the Exercise,” by Negar Azimi, New York Times Sunday Magazine, November 1.