The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk
A LONG, meaty read. I had to work hard to finish the book. Due to my sore neck I had to spend hours lying on my bed, so I could read for hours. Luckily, or else I would not have finished it. Our Book Club chose the book because it was by a Turkish author and we hadn’t read any Turkish books in the seven years of our existence.
The blurb described the novel as “a work of romantic love” – if this was romantic love, then it isn’t my version. The blurb went on: “ a haunting novel of memory, desire and loss … with fascinating insights into a society tugged between East and West” : a much more accurate summation. Especially the East/West conflict. I enjoyed the descriptions of the city (Istanbul and the Istanbullus and traditional Turkish life, and I enjoyed the stories about the outdoor cinemas held in gardens, on balmy nights, under the mulberry trees) but the main character – Kemal – I could cheerfully have attacked with an axe, after reading every other page! Under the heading of MEN. He behaved so badly towards his lover Fűsan; however, in retaliation, she made him suffer for years.
I could not believe my eyes when I read the last sentence in the book : “Let everyone know, I lived a very happy life”. This, as the ending TO a book about obsessive love, after pages and chapters detailing years of misery, loss, and fixation!
I liked the little touches e.g. Lemon, the canary. This bright yellow little caged bird belonged to Fusan and was probably one of the happiest brightest characters in the entire book! If not the only gleam of brightness in the book.
On thewhole, the Turkish men came across as chain smoking hard drinkers – several of them dying in their early sixties, of heart attacks. The women were also portrayed as smoking constantly . Because Turkey is the home of Turkish tobacco, I suppose this was not unsurprising or unrealistic. But what was a surprise to me was the portrayal of rich, upper class society. I never thought of Turkey during the 60s/70s as having the Filthy Rich that are portrayed in this novel.
My first book by this Turkish Nobel Laureate. I might try some more.
Snow by Orhan Pamuk
I decided to try another of Pamuk’s books. This earlier novel is a great deal shorter, but more complex, than the first one I read.
The blurb says that when the book came out in 2002 it angered Islamists and westernised Turks alike and promptly sold 100 000 copies: it seems to me that any books that irritates absolutely everybody must be doing something right!
Reading Pamuk is like visiting another planet. Although the books are translated skilfully into smooth English, there is a foreign-ness about them, an otherness, a picture of a radically different culture that underlies the characters, the events, the background. Pamuk is not writing about tourist Turkey : the Turkey of Istanbul, semi-westernised, picturesque tiled domes, crowded bazaars, leather goods and woven carpets. No. He is writing about something entirely different, the far north-eastern city of Kars. I had to haul out my giant atlas to locate Kars, it’s in the middle of nowhere, en route to the Iranian border. Pamuk is writing about provincial Turkey, where poverty, unemployment, dirt, hopelessness, government surveillance, plots and counterplots, spying, arrest and torture, infuse the lives of the Turkish, Kurdish, radical Islamists and Attaturk secularists residents.
The city is drowned for three days in a mammoth blizzard of snow, cut off from the outside world, cut off from sanity almost, as events develop. He’s writing about a familiar theme: when the world of traditional old-style Turkey collides with the wicked West, but this time he throws nationalism versus Islamic reformers into the mix as well. The poet Ka returns from exile in Germany to write an article about the rash of suicides carried out by the ‘headscarf girls’ who return to head-covering thereby incurring the wrath of the secularists.
Ka falls in love with the beautiful Ipek, daughter of the hotel owner,
whose other daughter Kadife is in love with the dangerous Islamist
revolutionary Blue, one-time lover of her sister …. the plot writhes and twists like a demented snake. Meanwhile the political ferment explodes into a Ruritanian revolution that takes place during a bizarre theatre performance. The wildly improbable theatre troupe of two provide a modicum of comic relief at intervals, notwithstanding the fact that Sunay, the actor/impresario stages a dramatic and extraordinary climax to the events in Kars.
Despite all this tumult and turmoil, the snowy landscape inspires Ka to write eighteen brilliant poems structured on the diagram of a snowflake. He writes down the poems which arrive perfect and complete, as if he is an amanuensis, but for who or what is never revealed. Apart from falling in love, Ka regains (fleetingly) his lost faith when he visits a famous Sheik in the city.
As a counterpoint to Ka’s adult love for Ipek there are the religious school teenage boys passionately in love with the headscarf girls, to whom they have never spoken, but for whom they are prepared to sacrifice their lives in noble gestures of pure idyllic love. Can you imagine any Western teenagers behaving like this?
Finally, the novelist inserts himself into the story, under his own name (just as he did in the Museum of Innocence) he seems to feel he has to explain why he is telling us the story of the poet Ka. This strikes me as an odd approach. I wonder if he does it in all his books? Clearly I shall have to read more to find out. Question is: do I have the strength? These two books were not an easy read.