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Insights into the Obsessive Love of Things
on 11 October 2012
The Museum of Innocence
It is both easy and difficult to talk about this intriguing novel by the recent Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature - a prize of course awarded for lifetime achievement rather than for a particular book. The easy part is to tell the plot, which usually in my experience takes up at least half of a review. The difficult part is to convey the quality of one's reading experience. So, to the plot, briefly:
Kemal, who tells the story - later we discover his story is ghost-written by a friend - is a wealthy businessman who falls in love with a poor shopgirl, one who has recently come third in a beauty contest. Unfortunately, he is engaged to an aristocratic girl to whom marriage for familial and business reasons would be more suitable. So far, so trite, but this is not Jane Austen all over again; this is romance, writ large to the nth degree. For Kemal is an obsessive; he not only cannot detach himself from Füsan the shopgirl, but can think of nothing else. All through the period of his engagement and, later, his marriage to Sibel, Kemal collects memorabilia associated with his beloved. This collection of sacred relics begins with a lost ear-ring and ends with a museum.
What is remarkable about this everyday story of an infatuated lover is the revelation of an interior world, where recalled scenes and images are as life-sustaining as the memorabilia he treasures. Cigarette butts with Füsan's lipstick on and stolen kitchen equipment are but two of the thousands of his objets d'art. Each item brings back a time and place where he loved and suffered in the past. He polishes them or kisses them in his mother's apartment where he sets up his shrine. His fling with Füsan took but a short time, but it remains with him for life. Of course, he occasionally asks himself what good this `love' does him or anyone else. The answer is not a scrap - the reverse in fact. But he can't help himself; the drug will never leave his system, and if it did do so by a miracle, the reader feels the poor man would not survive.
The claustrophobic setting is Istanbul in the 1970s and beyond. The streets are narrow and crowded and the heat suffocating. Kemal names every street along which he has passed, dreaming of the beloved or remembering his later suffering. He presents the reader with a map, highlighting important features, and, to complete his encyclopaedia of folly he appends to a 700+ page novel a paginated index of all the characters mentioned.
What I loved most about this Proustian novel was the privileged view I was given of another consciousness, a madman one might say, a self-destructive obsessive, one who sacrifices everything for a dream, a no doubt selfish illusion about a fairly unexceptional girl. Except that we are made to realise that nobody is unexceptional, that the other characters whom Kemal damages are alive and immortalised in the book, just as his treasures are enshrined in his museum. We feel sympathy for them, even those who are hostile to him.