The Museum of Innocence
The Museum of Innocence
Orhan Pamuk
Knopf, 2009
535 pp., $28.95

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Reviewed by Laurance Wieder

Hall of Mirrors

The new novel by Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk.

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In the final chapter, "Happiness," Orhan sought out the now-retired chauffeur. Çetin Efendi describes Kemal as unchanged since boyhood, open and optimistic. Füsun and Kemal "were essentially good and innocent souls who suited each other perfectly, but as God had been unwilling to let them be together, we mortals were in no position to question the outcome too closely."

Orhan Pamuk's 1998 Ottoman-period novel My Name is Red (which might have been called "Someone is Killing the Sultan's Manuscript Illuminators") contains an extended discussion of the conflict between the rising Venetian school of portraiture and the dominant Persian style, teasing out the mortal implications of what might otherwise be mistaken for art history. By the time that book appeared in English, in the winter of 2001, the questions this fiction asks had acquired more urgency, more resonance. What exactly is a person's individuality? How can it be represented? Which is more powerful: religion, culture, or erotic and thanatoptic nature? Does love conquer, and if so, what? Among the many narrators of this mystery of ideas is the six-year-old Orhan, who, like all of Orhan Pamuk's storytellers, is both witness and participant.

Pamuk's next novel, Snow (2002 in Turkish, 2004 in English), collaged the notebooks and journals of the deceased poet Ka with news clips, interviews, and on-the-scene research. The poet's friend Orhan, an Istanbuli novelist, tells Ka's life as he lived it: a story of revolutionary commitment and aesthetic modernism, journalism and prophecy, love and impotence in Kars, in northern Turkey, near the border of Georgia, Armenia, and Iran.

At Kemal's last meeting with Orhan Bey as recounted in The Museum of Innocence, the collector of memories says, "I read your novel Snow all the way to the end …. I don't like politics. So please don't be offended if I say I found it a bit of a struggle. But I liked the ending. At the end of our novel I would like to do the same as that character in Snow and address the reader directly. Do I have this right?"

Is this the plea of innocence, or of not knowing?

Kemal Bey is a self-confessed liar. He lied to his lover, to his fiancée, and to his mother. Presumably, he also lies to his hired scribe, Orhan Pamuk. No one is deceived except himself.

One insignificant guest at Kemal's engagment party to Sibel, who as a young man danced once with the beautiful Füsun under Kemal's jealous gaze, Pamuk is no fool. The novelist knows Kemal for what he is, which must be in part himself. From this distance or privileged vantage, the ghost author of the museum catalogue withholds some thing from his narrator—not his time, certainly, and perhaps not even affection; perhaps judgment.

Laurance Wieder's review of Orhan Pamuk's Snow appeared in the November/December 2004 issue of Books & Culture. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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