Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Museum of Innocence - Objects, Memories and Stories

My blog-post, at the end of last year, on Great Books of 2015 sparked a lively debate around the definition of historical fiction: can a novel such as Emily Bullock's The Longest Fight (one of my favourite novels of last year) be considered to be "historical," when it is set in a time-frame that is still within the living memory of many people (in this case, the 1950s)? Perhaps it depends on the author's relationship to the time period (neither Emily Bullock nor I was alive in the 1950s), or perhaps it depends on how much has changed in the time that has elapsed between the setting and the writing of the book? A new film and exhibition have led me to revisit some of these questions.

The Turkish Nobel laureate, Orhan Pamuk, has written both historical fiction (My Name is Red, set in the Sixteenth Century; The White Castle, set in the Seventeenth Century) and contemporary fiction (The Black Book, The New Life, Snow). His most recent novels (The Museum of Innocence, The Silent House, The Strangeness in My Mind) occupy the same liminal ground as The Longest Fight, with settings that are semi-historical or almost contemporary.

Common threads link much of Pamuk's historical and contemporary fiction; including the city of Istanbul (more specifically the streets of the Nisantasi district, where he himself grew up, and nearby Beyoglu, both on the European side of the Bosphorus), frequented, alike by his historical and contemporary protagonists; and recurring themes, including forbidden or doomed love, the persistence of memory, and a peculiarly Turkish concept of melancholy, "Huzun."

Constantinople in 1422, by Christofero Buondelmonti, showing the old Italian Quarter of Pera to the north of the Golden Horn, Bibliotheque Nationale de France (image is in the Public Domain).
Galata and Pera from the south. Photo: SALTOnline (image is in the Public Domain).

The Museum of Innocence is set between 1974 and 1984, and concerns the doomed love affair between a wealthy businessman, Kemal, and a poorer distant relative, Fusun. Looking back on their relationship, Kemal eventually purchases the family home in which Fusun grew up, and sets about collecting objects and photographs that encapsulate his memories of her, and of the times they have shared.

Pamuk himself began collecting artefacts in the mid-1990s, and always had in mind to create the novel and a physical museum in tandem with one another. He purchased the house in which the fictional Kemal "established" his museum. The novel, published in Turkish in 2008 (and in English the following year), has 83 chapters, and for, each of these, Pamuk created a vitrine, or display case, for the museum. The novel and the museum tell the same story in different ways: one can appreciate the novel without having seen the museum, and vice versa.

The Museum of Innocence, in Istanbul's Beyoglu district, known for its antique shops, where Orhan Pamuk collected many of the objects now housed within. Photo: The Museum of Innocence (licensed under CCA).

Orhan Pamuk, in Istanbul's Museum of Innocence. Photo: The Museum of Innocence (licensed under CCA).

The story of Kemal and Fusun's romance has now been told in a third way. Grant Gee's film, Innocence of Memories, released last year in collaboration with Pamuk, combines footage of the museum itself, and of the streets on which it is set; commentary by "Kemal" himself, and by other characters in the novel, and people who have known "Fusun;" interviews with Pamuk; and extracts from the Turkish melodrama films watched by Fusun and Kemal during the course of their romance. Following on from his 2011 release, Patience (a complex "unravelling" of W.G. Sebald's novel, The Rings of Saturn), Gee is emerging as one of the most literary of the current generation of British film-makers, and his elision, here, of fact and fiction certainly adds a new dimension to Pamuk's original story.

Innocence of Memories is currently showing as an extended run (until 11th February) at the British Film Institute, on London's South Bank. Directly across the Thames, Somerset House is hosting (until 3rd April), a mini-exhibition of some of the vitrines from Pamuk's Museum of Innocence (open daily, with free admission). Looking at these displays, in conjunction with the novel and the film, it is clear to me that, whatever the period of the setting of his story, Pamuk's approach, in researching and composing his story, is indeed a historical one. It poses the question, in my mind, as to whether "historical fiction" might be as much a literary technique as a literary genre?

"My Father's Death," one of the vitrines from The Museum of Innocence, now on display at Somerset House. Photo: The Museum of Innocence (licensed under CCA).
Objects play an important role in my own historical fiction, but most of these objects are already in museums. My stories have tended to be set further back in the past, and even if it were ethical to collect objects from the remote past (the trade in antiquities is a dubious one, involving illegal excavations, smuggling, faked provenances and the like), it would be prohibitively expensive. For the moment, at least, I am content to display images of them on my various Pinterest boards, but what my project has in common with Pamuk's is the way in which real places, and real objects, together act as signifiers of moments in the lives of my fictional characters, connecting their worlds to our own.

"In physics," Pamuk's Kemal suggests to us, "Aristotle makes a distinction between Time, and the single moments he describes as the 'Present.' Single moments are - like Aristotle's atom - invisible, unbreakable things. But Time is the line that links them. My life has taught me that remembering Time - the line connecting all the moments that Aristotle called the Present - is, for most of us, a rather painful business. However, if we can learn to stop thinking of life as a line corresponding to Aristotle's Time, treasuring our time, instead, for its deepest moments, the lingering eight years at our beloved's dinner table no longer seems strange and laughable. Instead, this courtship signifies 1593 happy nights by Fusun's side."

Post-Script (added on 6th February 2016): for Orhan Pamuk's own perspective on the film, please click here.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.


  1. Mark, I always love your posts - but, oh my, are they distracting when I should be working... :) Thank you again for a fascinating article on what sounds like a fascinating project / book. Wish the London Book fair was 2 weeks earlier so that I could go to the exhibition...

  2. I love what Pamuk has done. It's very forward-thinking. An interactive book, brick-and-mortar style.