The museum of innocence

A meditation on the novel by Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk and the museum he built in Istanbul in tandem with it

At a glance

  • ‘Isn’t love what you feel when you can’t see me?’

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A CHANGING COUNTRY Portrait of Orhan Pamuk by Ozan Kose at his desk in his Istanbul home (AFP)

There’s an ongoing promo package put together by Deluks Tourizm and Travel Warehouse Inc., in partnership with Oman Air, for eight days and seven nights in Türkiye. It’s $1,888, all in.
The package is inclusive of air fare, transfers, accommodations and meals, entrances to sightseeing and tours of ruins, mosques and temples, and cave dwellings, as well as tour guide and driver services and tips, and it covers the best parts of Türkiye, including Istanbul, Bursa, Pamukkale, Antalya, and Cappadocia. Among the highlights are a tour of the Silk Market and Mehmed I’s Green Tomb in Bursa City, a visit to the ruins of Ephesus, the Temple of Apollo, Hierapolis, Cappadocia’s fairy chimneys and underground cities, and, of course, Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar, and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.

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A DEEP SENSE OF NOSTALGIA All sorts of ephemera, including a tootbrush collection, enshrine life in Turkey in the period between 1975 and 1983

For now, however, stray with me a bit from the itinerary to the Museum of Innocence in the charming neighborhood Çukurcuma in the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul. Conceived by Türkiye’s most accomplished living authors, Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, just as he was wrapping up his novel of the same title, the museum is housed in a four-story building constructed in 1897 in a deep shade of fallen leaves. It took Pamuk many years to get the museum exactly as he had envisioned it. It opened in 2012, four years after the novel was published worldwide.
I read The Museum of Innocence while on hard lockdown during the early phase of the pandemic and it resonated with my desire, then so frustrated due to the social isolation brought about by the restrictions, to be around people I loved. The novel, after all, is a mesmerizing account of obsession borne out of the inability to possess one’s object of desire. It’s the love story between Kemal, scion of one of Istanbul’s wealthiest families, and a beautiful shopgirl Füsun, who turns out to be his distant cousin and poor relation.

The affair starts with the two meeting when a handbag calls Kemal’s attention at a shopwindow. Füsun helps him with his purchase, but his future bride, for whom he buys it, later turns it down, reasoning that it’s a fake. Before the wedding takes place, even as the bride-to-be allows herself to have physical relations with her fiancé, looked down upon in Turkish society in those times but also engaged in by the girls, who think of it as thoroughly modern, Kemal and Füsun begin to see each other in secret. It is also Füsun’s first time to have sex and, though she goes into it with her eyes wide open, knowing that Kemal is engaged to be married, she falls for him. Kemal, on the other hand, unaware that he is beginning to see Füsun in a more romantic light, is resolved to end the affair along with his bachelor days.
While Kemal and Füsun do part ways before the wedding, he calls it off, but it is too late when he realizes it is because of Füsun. He has lost interest in his bride and later, especially when Füsun moves away into a neighborhood undisclosed to him, even in the upper-crust society he and his jilted bride move in. It takes him over a year to find Füsun and, having found her already married to another man, he begins 2,864 days, nearly eight years, of finding every excuse to be close to her, even inviting himself to 1,593 dinners with her family, including her husband, at her home in a poor section of Istanbul.


It is also the heart of the book. All that frustrated longing, all that watching from a distance, all the thrill of having his elbow surreptitiously touch hers on the dinner table comprise more than 300 pages of the 700 plus-page novel, on which Kemal could not bring himself to even look her in the eye, lest she sees his true intentions and, disapproving, slips from his grasp again.
I didn’t realize what I posted on social media as soon as I landed in Türkiye was entitled “The Museum of Innocence,” referring to this novel, even as I didn’t know until eight days later that I could break away from my travel group to make my way to the Museum of Innocence. The museum, which won the European Museum of the Year award in 2014, houses ephemera reminiscent of Turkey between 1975 and 1983, during which the lovelorn character Kemal collected—often stealing or pilfering—anything the object of his frustrated love Füsun touched, such as the 4,213 Samsun cigarettes that came in contact with her lips, some of which still bear a trace of her lipstick in manifold shades of red. Each cigarette stub in the wall panel, which welcomes visitors to the museum, comes with a handwritten note to put it in context. Behind one of the stubs, for instance, is the Turkish word for Earthquake, written in longhand. I assume it was collected the day an earthquake struck while Kemal was by Füsun’s side. There are many other ephemera, which Oxford defines as “things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time,” such as old photographs, used movie tickets, newspaper clippings, buttons, empty Marlboro boxes, combs and hairbrushes, teaspoons and saltshakers, all organized in 83 display cases corresponding to the novel’s 83 chapters.


Each object is enshrined as if at an altar at which Kemal could keep on worshipping Füsun or as if at a tomb commemorating the lost paradise of their deep emotional and physical connection. Not only are they a relic of Füsun, the objects on display are also a record of life back in those days in Turkey.
On this trip, as well as the first time I went to Istanbul, I let the city color the lens with which I experienced everything with a layer of what Orhan Pamuk calls hüzün, a deep sense of melancholy, replete with the nostalgia of things lost.

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Both the novel and the Museum of Innocence, as well as Istanbul, with all the remains of layers upon layers of rulers and conquests, from the Greco-Roman period to the Ottoman regime, still intact in its buildings and on its streets and in the average Turkish eyes, are evocative of such huge losses as well as Turkey’s belated jump from ancient history to modernity and, because its idea of modern is patterned after the West, also its jump from Eastern mysticism to Western practicality, from being Asian to being increasingly European, though only three percent of the landmass of Türkiye lies in Europe.

No wonder I always see Türkiye, particularly Istanbul, in permanent sepia tones, as if in the half-light of either dusk or dawn. In the objects preserved at the museum lies what I’ve seen in Istanbul, limited as my visits have been, as the spaces in between the rising and falling and falling or rising again of great empires and civilizations in Turkey.
In capturing what lies between what keeps us holding on to the past and what pushes us forward into the future, the Museum of Innocence, in both its novel and museum form, is a shrine for what we aim for and what we refuse to leave behind, as represented by deeply personal, everyday things that make up the underlying character of a nation.
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