Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Illusion of Love

The Museum of Innocence
The Museum of Innocence

"Love is merely a madness, and, I tell you, deserves a dark house and a whip as madmen do:  and the reason why they are not so punished and cured is that the lunacy is so ordinary that the whippers are in love to." - Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, II, iii, 7

“Love is not vain because it is frustrated, but because it is fulfilled. The people we love turn to ashes when we posess them.” ― Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time: Volume II - The Guermantes Way & Cities of the Plain

Writing about Vladimir Nabokov's novel Ada, Orhan Pamuk said that "Nabokov reminds us that our memories allow us to carry our childhood with us, and with it the golden age we thought we had left behind." This is not that dissimilar from the memories of the narrator of Orhan Pamuk's scintillating novel The Museum of Innocence. It is with a memory of love, obsessive and passionate, inflamed by Eros that Kemal, the narrator of the story, begins his tale.
It is a tale that reminded me of Socrates discussion of the myth of the chariot in The Phaedrus. The charioteer is filled with warmth and desire as he gazes into the eyes of the one he loves. Ultimately he is torn by a sort of divine madness. In the novel Kemal tells how "I first began to feel fissures opening in my soul, wounds of the sort that plunge men into a deep dark, lifelong loneliness for which there is no cure." (pp 52-3)
Fairly soon into the story Kemal throws over the perfection of his fiance, Sibel, whose "perfect placement of every pearl" cannot compete with the hold that Eros has over him in his overwhelming passion of the young girl Fusun.
Now if this is all there was to this story the novel would be short, semi-sweet, and in spite of the beautiful prose of the author not worthy of much further comment. But, as you may suspect there is more to this novel than this simple, albeit passionate, tale of a Turkish love triangle. No, the Museum of Innocence plumbs the depths of illusion. There is the illusion of love, the illusion of time, and ultimately the illusion of life.
The malleability of time is evidence of what the narrator calls "the illusion that is time." (p 282) It is compared to the difference between the personal life we each live within and the "official" time that we share with others. Kemal's obsessive love controlled his personal time even as the clock on the wall in Fusun's home ticked off the "time". The reader experiences a similar sensation when the regularity of short chapters of the novel is suddenly broken by chapter 24, "The Engagement Party", which is almost five times longer than the average length of those preceding. You must discover for yourself what intimacies of plot detail warrant a slowing of the flow of the story.
Kemal's obsessive love is also illusory and leads him through memories of a life that is just as much illusion as he is blinded to the reality of the individuals who people his world.  These individuals include the man that his ideal love marries and the people involved in the Turkish cinema world that surround both him and Fusun.
Ultimately the narrative succeeds in communicating the complexity of what Kemal calls "the strange and mysterious spirit" of his days spent pursuing the illusion of life through obsessive love. The suspense keeps building as the novel progresses to the point where you begin to feel like those actors on the stage who wait for the next direction.  Acting as the spine of the story is the development of the Museum of Innocence - a museum that transcends the space of the novel, which also becomes a collection of episodes in the life of a collector - someone whose passions make for exceptional reading.

Illustrations: 1) The museum, named after the novel, which houses a collection of Istanbul's past cultural and daily life artifacts from the time period the novel was set in. 2) The author.

The Museum of Innocence: A Novel by Orhan Pamuk. Alfred A. Knopf, 2009 (2008)

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