As in many books by Orhan Pamuk, the real shining star of this novel is Istanbul. The story charts the development of the city’s social mores and customs from an Eastern-dominated Conservatism to a much more Western system of values and conceits. Thus such concepts as pre-marital sex, female independence and free-market capitalism are among the major themes of the novel.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the actual plot of the book falls far short of being the magnum-opus of love and life that the author is attempting.
Kemal, the novel’s protagonist, spends the majority of his life in love with Fusun; a ‘beautiful shop girl’ and distant relation. In an attempt to record and preserve their relationship, he begins to hoard inanimate objects which, in one way or another, are relevant to his and Fusun’s story – this collection being the titular ‘Museum of Innocence’.
Pamuk’s handling of this rather twee idea is charming at first, but soon becomes so repetitive that the theme of collecting (unintentionally I’m sure) turns into a farce. Kemal attributes the same emotional weight and significance to every item of Fusun’s that he steals. While it is understandable that Kemal would get upset, even distraught, as he contemplates his absent lover’s most prized items of jewellery, seeing him ball his eyes out over her half-eaten food and cigarette stubs in the same manner is just taking the concept too far.
In fact, much of the novel’s failings come from Pamuk over-reaching himself. Many of his metaphors are extended beyond the point at which they’re enlightening (such as an overly long and gratuitous mid-novel description of how love can be a real, physical pain), and his characters just aren’t as complex as the narrator would have us believe. Fusun, the object of love, comes across as a stroppy and juvenile woman, stuck in a perpetual adolescence. Similarly, Kemal’s optimism and chirpy out-look is at odds with his supposed heart-ache and despair.
The first half of the novel is the best – but in a book of this length, that leaves a lot to be desired in the overly repetitive and ambling second half.
It’s a shame that The Museum of Innocence fails at as many things as it succeeds. A beautiful social history of Istanbul is given somewhat of a back-seat to a bland and uninspiring love story. Nothing ever seems at stake in this novel – there is no sense of risk. The reasons why Fusun and Kemal don’t just get-it-together are largely nonsensical, given the supposed level of passion involved.
The predictable ending of the book is somewhat more engaging that the preceding three or four hundred pages, but again the author is attempting too much. The reasoning behind Fusun’s final act isn’t explored at all, and the novel finishes with that awful modern-cliché of inter-textual revelation a-la Atonement. I was left disappointed, and feeling that this novel could have been so much more, if only Pamuk had held back with certain aspects, and pushed forward with others.