The Museum of Innocence
is a 2008 novel by Turkish Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk. Set in the 1970s and 80s in Turkey’s international city, Istanbul, it follows a wealthy man named Kemal who falls in love with his distant cousin, Fusun. To help construct the novel’s distinctively Turkish emotional texture, Pamuk consulted clips from films and mid-twentieth-century music in Turkish history. He credits Milan’s Bagatti Valsecchi Museum for the inspiration behind the book’s narrative, which is primarily about the nostalgia one develops when a certain way of life slips away in the unrelenting current of time. The novel was excerpted in The New Yorker
, has been translated into many languages, and was the subject of near-universal literary acclaim. The novel’s central themes include identity, female autonomy, the preservation and distortion of memory, the differences between Eastern and Western culture and norms, and Turkey’s complex philosophies of love and marriage.The Museum of Innocence
begins two months after Kemal proposes to a beautiful young girl named Sibel. While shopping for gifts for Sibel in preparation for their wedding, he encounters Fusun, who works as a clerk at a handbag store. Immediately taken with each other, they find ways to meet in secret over the next couple of months. One day, Fusun tells Kemal that she is in love with him, and they have sex. He later remembers that day as the most jubilant day of his life. Nevertheless, he does not tell Fusun that he feels the same way about her, preferring to participate in the illusion that he is meant to proceed with his engagement to Sibel. Fusun pursues him for a while, hoping that he will change his mind. She appears at his engagement party and then leaves without explaining herself or saying farewell.
Kemal is heartbroken for a year after his engagement. He tries to hold tight to his relationship with Sibel, but cannot shake the feeling that he has lost a profound and fateful connection. He reaches out to Fusun, but she refuses to meet him. In her absence, he attaches to anything or place that evokes a memory of her and their sexual experiences. In a predictable fashion, his relationship with Sibel withers, then dies, without any real spark. At last, Fusun responds to one of Kemal’s letters. She tells him that she is now married, and lives with her husband and her parents. She also agrees to meet him, but on the condition that they pretend to be distant family members who have become casually acquainted. When he arrives at her family’s home, she treats him with resentment but civility, hinting at the pain she is suppressing from their breakup. Kemal tries to convince her to come back to him, but she rejects him repeatedly, preferring the certainty of the life she has established to her former passion. In an attempt to symbolically reclaim her, Kemal takes items from her house during each successive visit in which he professes his love.
After Fusun’s father dies, she falls out of love with her husband. When they divorce, Fusun finally considers Kemal an option again. He takes her on a honeymoon through Europe, and the flame of their former passion reignites. Tragically, after the last night of their honeymoon – the most intimate night of their lives together – Fusun is in a fatal car accident. Devastated, Kemal turns to all of the objects he has collected in Fusun’s memory over the past decade. Each one represents a different moment of bliss he wishes he could return to. At the end of the novel, Kemal transforms Fusun’s now-vacant house into the titular “museum of innocence,” decorating it with the objects from their time together, as well as cultural artifacts from Turkey during the years of their relationship. The Museum of Innocence
’s tragic outcome is ironically universal in essence, implying that all people yearn to possess or inhabit a past that has been stripped away.