Love, life and objects in Istanbul

In the Çukurçuma neighbourhood of Istanbul, there is a museum of items that come straight from a work of fiction. The Museum of Innocence is possibly the oddest such institution I have ever visited anywhere. The Museum of Innocence was conceived by Turkish author Orhan Pamuk in tandem with an eponymous novel. The novel and the museum jointly explore a one-sided love story that borders on obsessive compulsive disorder and a fascination with collecting random objects that similarly comes close to compulsive hoarding. The novel/museum is also awash with representations of the cultural clashes between the East and the West that define the Turkish identity.

The novel, which I read in advance of my visit to the museum – and my first visit to Istanbul –
details the story of Kemal, a wealthy Istanbulite who falls in love with his poorer cousin Füsun and his ruminations on the nature of love and life. The museum in turn displays the artefacts of this love story in the same arrangement as the chapters in the novel. The relationship is doomed from the start because Kemal is engaged to another woman. He breaks off the wedding but loses Füsun as well and then spends the next eight years reminiscing and pilfering items from Füsun’s family home where he eats dinner every night with her family.

The objects of everyday use which Kemal collects ward off the profound melancholy that threatens to overwhelm him as he is comforted by their smell and touch, knowing that Füsun has touched the very same surfaces. It is the ordinary nature of the objects – the cigarette butts, tickets and jewellery – that renders them worthy of preservation in a museum. As bona fide exhibits in the Museum of Innocence, these objects then evoke and document personal stories and memories of the Istanbul of the 1970s. In doing so, they also redefine the purpose of museums as places that tell important, if personal, histories using random objects.

The same logic can be applied to antique shops in general and the antique shops in Çukurçuma and Istanbul in particular, from where Pamuk sourced the bulk of the exhibits for his museum. These shops are a treasure trove of personal possessions of unknown people that have been hoarded by meticulous shop owners. Here one can buy someone’s stationery, cutlery or even their family photographs and, by doing so, appropriate their identity. The objects themselves are transplanted into new contexts and given a new life in someone else’s hands. This is an eerie exercise and it comes across as much in Pamuk’s novel/museum.

The novel, with the help of the museum, also delves into the question of Turkish identity which is torn between traditional and Westernised and between a vast cultural history of the Ottoman Empire and advancing modernity. Pamuk is here, as he has been in his other novels, an interpreter of Turkish society to Western audiences. Central to this are Kemal’s dilemmas that touch on divisions between the East and the West, Islamist and secular, rich and poor, and ancient and modern. The picture of Turkish identity that emerges from these musings is vastly complex: it encompasses all of these divisions – and much more besides them.