Fiction: "The Museum of Innocence," by Orhan Pamuk

Book Review

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I didn't know what to expect from Orhan Pamuk's first novel since "Snow" earned him the Nobel Prize in 2006. I hadn't read him, but knew he was widely revered and feared. "Museum" would be esoteric, pretentious and dauntingly serious.

So imagine my surprise at reading a magnificent novel about the intersection of love and obsession, one that depends on accretion of detail to tell the full story of Kemal Bey, an indolent member of Istanbul's leisure class, and Fusun Hanim, a distant relative several rungs lower on the social ladder.

Besides being a singular study of love, this is a chronicle of societal shifts, as Pamuk tracks the westernization of Istanbul between 1975 and 1983. He paints so vivid a picture of the city you in effect smell the pastries, get drunk on raki along with Kemal and his friends and relatives and revel in the beauty of Fusun and Sibel, respectively Kemal's obsession and the woman he was supposed to marry.

By Orhan Pamuk
Alfred A. Knopf ($28.95)

The novel, while ostensibly about museums, is a weaving of various social strains including family -- Pamuk's depiction of Fusun's close, warm household is the aspirational glue of the book -- business and artifice.

The prism is Kemal, the narrator, who gives the novel yet another dimension toward the end, when he turns over responsibility for the story to Pamuk himself.

That one's sympathy comes to lean toward Kemal, after Pamuk establishes his "hero" as a feckless, sexist cad, attests to the writer's gift for characterization. That gift extends to minor characters such as the White Carnation, a gossip columnist who scandalizes Kemal and his circle in one of the novel's juiciest scenes.

One of several bravura moments is Chapter 81, "The Museum of Innocence," in which Kemal explains how he has become an anthropologist of love. Pamuk's approach is meticulous, his language (the translation from the Turkish by Maureen Freely reads beautifully) precise and felicitous.

Overall, the book is a fabulous read that begins leisurely but turns urgent. It's so tightly written that quoting it is difficult, though it's packed with perception and thoughts spanning time Aristotelian and quotidian.

Pamuk's goal is to illuminate love by a narrator whose passive-aggressive nature reflects a society in which desire is masked, family obligations rule and deviation from the norm especially in politics (a shadow throughout) leads to loneliness, if not ostracism.

What makes Pamuk's novel magical is how he renders the Istanbul he loves enchanting despite its binds.

Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer from Cleveland. First Published January 17, 2010 5:00 AM


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