On the west side of Naples is a steep little park with winding paths. Near the spot where Vergil is supposedly buried is a botanical garden at the bottom of the hill: if you bend down to peer at the labels, you will see that every plant in this garden has been plucked from the poetry of Vergil, together with a couple of lines of Latin. It was here, among the rain-jewelled tamarisks and clumps of rosemary, that I finally got the brilliance of Vergil’s descriptions of the Italian landscape. To see, to scent, physically to grasp the object of a thought or feeling: this is the way we truly learn and understand.
Orhan Pamuk has chosen this mode of experience as the theme for a new novel stunning in its simplicity. Kemal has it all: a sinecure in his father’s company, a smart set of friends and beautiful, cultured fiancee. When he wakens to the impossibly good looks of his distant relative Füsun and makes her his mistress, he thinks his life is complete. Everything, of course, falls apart, Füsun leaves him, and he collapses into a pit of despair. Wracked by emotional and physical agony, he can soothe himself only by the touch and smell of objects that remind him of his lover. He snitches earrings, postcards, fragments of wallpaper, anything, until he becomes a connoisseur of memory, and assembles his hoard into a museum dedicated to his love. The painfully honest narrative is told as a kind of guide to this museum. ‘The ancient Chinese thought that things had souls,’ the narrator says, but it would be more exact to say that he gives little shards of his own soul to his exhibition. Each item recalls a host of memories, and so we are told the life-story of a love affair through cigarette butts and smashed cars.
Yet this is also a story about Istanbul. Pamuk’s deep affection for his home city suffuses all of his work, and it is not much of an exaggeration to say that he has done for Istanbul what Dickens did for London and Hugo for Paris – he has made her a living icon. In part of his memoirs of Istanbul, he sets out to describe what the Turks call hüzun, the city-wide melancholy compounded of nostalgia and unrequited longing that settles in the streets from time to time like a sea-fog. Istanbul may be European Capital of Culture this year, but the seventies were dark days of extremism on right and left. Kemal’s desperate passion for Füsun comes to symbolise this tragic love affair between the city and her ideals. Every object he cleaves to in his hunger for memory speaks as much of his city as of his emotions.
Pamuk’s delicate portrait of obsessive love has drawn inevitable comparisons with Proust, but his style is less subtle and anaemic, less slumbrous and cumbersome. When he describes hüzun in Istanbul, he reaches not for Proust but for the livelier wisdom of Montaigne, and that same spirited frankness is found in The Museum of Innocence. Kemal bares everything. It is such an immediate book that any reader could fall into it on the spot. Maureen Freely’s translation is limpid and simple, larded with the occasional homely Turkism: people of integrity, for instance, are called ‘straight arrows,’ and a woman is said to hate another woman so much that she ‘would drown her in a spoonful of water’.
A lingering, sweet melancholy drifts through the story’s veins; as Kemal wastes away with love, the old, old city about him is fraying at the edges. The streets are full of running battles, the televisions full of military coups, the beautiful chalets of the Ottoman nobility are crumbling in the sunset on the shores of the Bosporus. The sense of loss and the passage of time sometimes threatens to overwhelm the reader, but there are always slender moments of hope and humour to soften the darkness. The final thirty pages describing the composition of the museum are as sure of life to come as they are tragic, and the novel’s end is possibly the best passage of new writing I have seen this century.
This book is not perfect. I remain to be convinced that Pamuk can conceive real, living women in his books who are more than just the bearers of ideas; perhaps, too, the story dwells too lovingly on some feelings and moments. Yet Pamuk has written a book for anyone and everyone: a book that teaches us the thick magic that gathers like dust about china dogs and matchboxes, the little things we touch and love and forget that mark out the course of our lives.