Words Made Flesh

Orhan Pamuk opens a museum in Istanbul

By / May 2012

The items on display in the Museum of Innocence, which opened in Istanbul in late April, have their provenance not in grand archaeological digs or high-stakes Sotheby’s auctions but in the pages of the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk’s most recent novel, also called “The Museum of Innocence.”

Like the book, the museum recounts the story of a character named Kemal and his obsessive quest to preserve the memory of an eight-year romance with a beautiful young woman named Fusun by cobbling together her personal effects and assorted ephemera from Istanbul in the 1970s. As the novel progresses, Kemal’s memories become reveries, and Fusun’s bric-a-brac displaces Fusun on the altar of Kemal’s heart.

The museum, which is said to be Fusun’s former residence, is located in a red, four-story house on a quiet street in Istanbul’s Cukurcuma neighborhood, a sliver of the Beyoglu quarter aptly known for its galleries and antique stores. No prior knowledge of the novel is necessary (although the book comes with a free ticket). Notes from Kemal, Pamuk’s protagonist, put the pictures, artifacts, and installations into the context of the doomed affair.

On the first floor, on the far wall, there is a framed collection of 4,213 Samsun cigarette butts, some lipstick-smeared, some snuffed out hurriedly, all smoked, Kemal’s note tells us, by Fusun. Like a lepidopterist’s butterfly specimens, the cigarettes have been dated, annotated, and pinned to a sheet of nicotine-stained wallpaper.

By making public and putting brick and mortar to Kemal’s private, fictional reliquary, Pamuk has fashioned a clever, outlandish, endlessly fascinating study into the discrepancies between fact and fabrication. “The whole art of the novel is about readers asking to themselves did the author really live this or did he imagine this?” Pamuk said at the opening on April 28, the day that the fictional lovers first met in 1975. “More or less, I did the same thing with the museum.”

Indeed, the Museum of Innocence unfolds more than just the narrative of Kemal’s idée fixe. Hanging from the wall along the narrow staircase to the upper floors, there are 83 framed cases of Istanbul memorabilia, one case for each chapter of the book. The line between art and artist becomes porous. Pamuk, via Kemal, could be enshrining the childhood he so elegiacally evoked in his memoir, “Istanbul: Memories and the City.”

The top floor is the site of the ultimate conflation, the place where the museum, the novel, and Pamuk (author, curator, Istanbul-native) come crashing together. We find in the room, alongside Kemal’s iron bed, nineteen spiral-bound notebooks in which Pamuk penned “The Museum of Innocence” over the course of several years.

Some pages contain color illustrations, seascape scenes scribbled down from the hotel window where Pamuk worked. Others contain the outline for the museum, right down to the details of the display cabinets.

The room is a striking, if slightly disturbing, testament to the arrant nature of the creative process. A novelist and his protagonist have rarely seemed more kindred. We suspect that for Pamuk, the idea behind the Museum of Innocence has been a longsuffering infatuation, as sweet, necessary, and controlling as Kemal’s reminiscences of young love.


Brian McKanna is a writer and contributor to EthnoTraveler.