Istanbul has always had a special place in my heart. It’s a city I return to over and over again, each time finding a new piece of magic. Traveling to locations you’ve visited before has a special attraction – you can once again experience our favourite food, see the sights that have mesmerized you and look forward to these rendezvous with memory long in advance, prolonging their spell. You can also relax and and really absorb the place – the chances being that you’ve already ticked off all the “must see” tourist landmarks during your earlier visits.
It was on one of such meetings with Istanbul that I encountered the Museum of Innocence.
I cannot recall what came to my life first – the museum or the book.But that foggy sequence is actually quite poetic in itself, because they were created by Orhan Pamuk hand in hand.
The Turkish writer, mostly known for My Name is Red and Snow, decided to take fiction to a new level. While working on his novel of the same title, he created an actual place called the Museum of Innocence.
The Museum is home to more than a thousand real objects Pamuk has collected over the years that depict the life of Instanbulites between 1970s to the early 2000s – when the novel is set. Instead of providing a cultural context however, Pamuk included in his notable collection items specific to the lives of his book’s characters.
The “Museum of Innocence” follows a story of Kemal, a man from a wealthy family who despite his engagement to Sibel, a lovely girl from his social circles, starts an affair with young Füsun, a distant relative he unexpectedly meets when buying bag for his fiancee.
What begins as an sensuous escape from his everyday life soon turns into a maddening obsession. Kemal cannot accept losing his beloved and find consolation in surrounding himself with items that belonged to her. Drifting further and further away from reality, Kemal loses himself in the world of memories.
Pamuk’s actual museum features what would have been Kemal’s collection. “I began to set my sights on things like ashtrays, cups, and slippers (…)during my eight years of going to the Keskins’ for supper, I was able to squirrel away 4,213 of Füsun’s cigarette buts. Each one of these had touched her rosy lips…” admits Kemal in the book while we find each of his stolen treasures in the museum.
Although the book was not my favourite, I found it somewhat spellbinding thanks to Pamuk’s creative idea. I loved that I was reading fiction yet knowing everything on the pages I was holding in my hands existed in real life. I could go to Istanbul and see Füsun’s lost earring that features in the book in such a vivid way, I could visit the museum and experience my beloved city’s past. To me, that’s a whole new level of literary genius.
Next time you’re in Istanbul please make your way to Çukurcuma district. Wander around its narrow streets admiring old houses and quirky cafes. When you come across a reddish 19th century house on the corner, do step in and immerse yourself in Istanbul’s memories and Pamuk’s fiction. And when you’re there, ask yourself: how far would I go for something I’m passionate about?