Orhan Pamuk, speaking to Sameer Rahim in The Daily Telegraph in an interview to coincide with the publication in English of his 1982 novel Silent House, says he is delighted that the Turkish public, with whom he has had an at times turbulent relationship, has taken to his more recent novel (2009) The Museum of Innocence.
It was a sweet reception – not something, I confess, I was used to from the Turkish media. The Museum of Innocence is not about politics, it’s a love story, but I think it’s political in the sense that it wants to capture how a man suppresses a woman. The more he is in love, the more he suppresses her – a typical non-Western, Middle Eastern situation.
Not that one should make easy assumptions about the place of women in Turkish society. I have seen so many photos of women on the covers of English books about feminism and Islam. It’s almost nearly always the same photo: two women wearing headscarves, driving around on a motorcycle, or using a computer, or doing something modern. These are naive, almost uneducated Western responses in understanding what is happening. They seemingly imply that if you wear a headscarf you don’t ever leave the house, whereas actually, you only wear the headscarf in order to leave the house.
The narrator of The Museum of Innocence, Kemal, in unrequited love, collects dozens of things owned by his beautiful cousin Füsun, and arranges them in a personal museum. And now The Museum of Innocence has become not just a novel but an actual museum. In April Pamuk opened for real in Istanbul what his character Kemal created in his fiction: a collection of Füsun’s objects arranged according to his memories. He tells Sameer Rahim:
It’s not that I wrote the novel first and it was successful, and I thought let’s do an adaptation. I wrote the novel as I collected the objects that would end up in the museum ... Postcards, photos, objects, not only Füsun’s, but the whole epoch. It was a desire to grasp that period with objects.
“One of the most extraordinary exhibits,” Rahim writes, “is the collection of Füsun’s 4,213 cigarette stubs saved by Kemal. Each one is handcrafted to represent Füsun’s emotional state on the day she smoked it: some are twisted from when she angrily crushed it on the ashtray, some only half-smoked from when she had to leave early; all have traces of red lipstick. If this were not detailed enough, Pamuk writes a sentence under each one adding up to a miniature history of their relationship: “You’re very cautious”, “Late-night shame”, “There is no turning back”.
But is all this not taking things a little too far? Has Pamuk, following his creation Kemal, become somewhat unhealthily obsessed with Füsun? “I’m not an obsessive collector,” he replies, perhaps slightly misunderstanding or evading the question. “I perhaps have 16,000 books and wouldn’t mind if one was stolen. A collector is a person who has 16,000 books and he is proud to have not read any of them. I’m not like that – I use them and read them.”