Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk (trans. Maureen Freely)

I'll say up front that a lot of my interest in this novel came from its Turkishness, and there are aspects of it that I forgave because of that. My colleague who lent it to me was perhaps less forgiving, so you can take this with a grain of salt.

The novel is about a man who has an affair with a younger woman while he's engaged. Both the affair and the engagement end badly, and the man spends the rest of his life obsessed with the younger woman. Now having just read, about a month ago, the Ottoman tale of Leyla and Mejnun, I was both quick and proud to recognize this novel is in many ways a rewriting of that tale. And so I was also quick to forgive or at least believe in much of the ridiculous behavior that the narrator engages in. Because he's following in the steps of Mejnun there isn't the same need to justify his actions. Except maybe there is... not just because as a Nobel Prize winner Pamuk has many Western readers who won't get the reference, but because shouldn't a fiction always stand on its own? Well, maybe not. I'm on the fence. Pamuk makes the reference pretty clear, so maybe he is fairly saying if you want to get the most out of my novel you need to understand the literature it has grown out of and if you don't, well, that's your own fault. Or maybe he's not even thinking of his Western readers--after all, you wouldn't worry too much about making sure your rewrite of Little Red Riding Hood would stand alone, would you?

But just so you know, Mejnun is famously crazy. He falls for Leyla, goes mad, runs off into the desert, and eventually enters a love so deep that he's one with the universe and therefore one with Leyla and doesn't even really want her anymore (in the physical sense) because he's got her (she's part of him spiritually). And Pamuk's narrator is a version of Mejnun. But what's interesting about the narrator (except that he's only kind of the narrator--a gimmicky thing I won't even bother to explain) is he doesn't sound in the least bit crazy. It's pretty common to write madmen stories in which they rant or speak in heightened voices or say things that are obviously off. But the narrator here sounds at all times quite rational and calm--his actions are not at all rational, but he hasn't lost his ability to have a conversation, to explain his own thinking--it all feels much closer to mental illness as I've witnessed it--and makes for a more sophisticated character (not an over-the-top, hair-tearing lunatic).

Also, Pamuk makes good use of first person here--writers are always aware that there are limitations to what a first person narrator can know but usually it's just a matter of making sure you don't violate the rules. But in this case, the fact that the reader can't know what Fusun (the young woman) is thinking makes a huge difference. It's not just that the narrator doesn't know what she's thinking, it's that we can't tell if his interpretations of her thoughts/actions are rational or crazy. She might still be in love with him; she might not be.

And lastly, the title comes from a museum the narrator sets up in honor of his lost love. It's small stuff like her hair pins and cigarette stubs, but it's a museum modelled after the small museums of the world--like the homes of authors which then put on display their typewriters and old cans of uneaten food. It's an addition to the novel that has nothing to do with the plot--I mean it's easily dropped--but it's the kind fo thing that declares this as a more ambitious, literary novel than most. It's sort of Kundera-ish in the way that it adds a layer to the narrative by commenting not just on the characters but on the ways of the world, the things we treasure, and the ways we store our memories. It was probably my favorite aspect of the novel. And while it's not the kind of thing you can add to say a realist novel (probably), it's worth considering: what if you took your imagining one step further into the unexpected...

4 comments:

irad said...

Our department's has a visiting professor coming at the end of the month--a musicologist--who will be presenting on musical adaptations of Majnun Leyla. (He is coming to deliver the Edward Said Memorial Lecture.) This Pamuk sounds cool...

The Modesto Kid said...

Thank you for the note about Leyla and Mejnun -- I am starting to read "Museum of Innocence" and that will be very useful information to bear in mind.

The Modesto Kid said...

BTW do you know where to find a good translation of the story of Majnun and Leyla? I found one verse translation here: http://www.turkmeninstitute.org/Fuzuli_main/leyla_and_mejnun_print.htm -- scanning it looks all right but I have no idea how well it is capturing the tone of the original.

Ayse Papatya Bucak said...

No, I don't speak Turkish or Arabic so I don't know about the translation.