Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Orhan Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence

The thrill of discovering a new author is that his or her merits can't be put into easy previous categories, a kind of "best of" from a particular trend or sub-interest. Orhan Pamuk's 2009 novel The Museum of Innocence is such a find. For all the talk, most of it academic wanking, regarding "new" forms and movements, explorers are either hitching their star to recombinations of existing postmodern angles, or shooting off past several Milky Ways. Some work to limited effect, some don't work at all. But what often intrigues me are works such as Pamuk's latest, which use the historical panoply to impressive and detailed variation.

Sexual-spiritual obsession is a well-stamped novelistic tradition. The protagonist in Thomas Hardy's masterpiece Jude the Obscure is ultimately crushed by society, and even worse, by invisible fate through an absent or indifferent God, but Pamuk's Kemal is harder to get a read on. There are many ways, all legitimate, to feel about, and for, the besotted rich scion who seduces the poor shopgirl, loses her to social pressure and expectation, presses her throughout marriage to another, and .... (elision for plot maintenance). He's patronising, insensitive, sensitive, observant, forgetful, wilful, tender, narcissistic, and loyal to the point of madness. These traits are presented seamlessly and through mind-bending repetitions which nevertheless unspool in carefully crafted nuance and variation. But it's the stylistic and form-altering scope which overwhelms.

Pamuk occasionally refers, through his first-person voiced narrator, to Aristotle. The dual sub-modes of diegesis and mimesis in The Museum of Innocence are used flawlessly in their back-and-forth elucidations. Pamuk, throughout his novel, also supports Aristotle's view of the separation of life and art through various means, not least of which is the authorial postmodern trick of inserting Orhan Pamuk as idiosyncratic character into the novel, especially during its delightful denouement. Pamuk doesn't break new ground here (Martin Amis and Will Self, among others, plunged into the scenescape before him), but that's part of the point. In an eternal recurrence of indefinite origin, it doesn't matter who gets to be the groundbreaker. Or perhaps these ideas have always been with us. But what Pamuk does with the trick (as in so many other epochal examples) is unique and intelligent and brave. We've been hammered with the idea that nothing can be communicated to one another, in art even more so than life, with any authoritative and accurate force. In fact, it's become doctrine for disaffected literary atheists. But Pamuk's narrator's concluding response to Pamuk the character (who may or not be an accurate portrayal of the author, or perhaps a partial depiction) includes, "I'm not going to say, as your character did, that readers cannot possibly understand us from afar. On the contrary, visitors to the museum and people who read your book will most certainly understand us." What a wonderfully triumphant assertion about the nature and validity of memory and imagination! The museum, of course (Kemal's detailed shrine for his beloved Fusun), acts as narrative and thematic device, a commentary on love's endurance but also on the persistence, the incredible palpability of the ephemeral.

But I've bookended, in a Coles Notes snippet, the history of the novel from Aristotle to Amis. Aristotle's tragic and epic definitions come to life in the lengthy narrative, especially so in what may (let's not kid, will) try the patience of the plot-searching tendency of many readers. Eight years of cozying up to his now-married ex-lover in the house of her, her husband, and her mother and father, all as a fond "friend" and distant cousin (in the interminable middle-to-late section), may seem excessive to no purpose. But one of the responsibilities of the novel is to depict a simulacrum of life as it is lived, without condensing for dramatic or salient effect. Every visit Kemal makes to the unassuming house in the run-down neighbourhood has a unique spin even while the narrator consolidates the boring routines. In this, I am reminded of Shostakovich's Symphony #15 in which, in the second movement adagio, repetitions are given striking variations, the dramatic arc is subtle, even sleepy at times, yet the build-up is surprising and highly emotional. Speaking of that symphony, postmodern quotations are also similar to the aforementioned authorial insertion with the four-note DSCH motif, the classical period is evoked with references, highly ironic, to Rossini, and other works in the composer's corpus are tapped just as Pamuk's Snow is also mentioned. Back to the novel, other references of the classical period in literature are brought in -- most notably to Flaubert's Madame Bovary -- and the reader will have no trouble in contrasting the difference in mood while noting its narrative similarities. The classical period is also evident in the novel's stately style, while the Romantic period is brought to mind with the obsessive pursuit and the identification of every event and thought to the "I". Modernist ironies and disjunctions are evident in the social critique of 1970s Istanbul. Retrograde? Postmodernism got under way a decade earlier, and half a century from when this was written, but again, Pamuk is using movements in an artistic and highly structural, well-thought-out sense, not a faddish building of superficial momentum.

Many themes are given free rein, with multiple angles and repetitive force through different perspectives: the dual pull of virginity's value in a society where tradition is revered socially and politically at the same time many have been forever altered by trips to Parisian lycees,  contact with American black market whiskey and soda,  lucrative aping of Western porn in a shamefully anemic film industry, and  overall civic architectural upheaval. Political terrorism of the right and left frequently erupt, and while the apolitical Kemal records it without emotion, the point is made that narcissism doesn't win. No one can shut out the world (some of Kemal's friends, associates, and acquaintances are directly affected). Then we have the urban horror of European road rage. Several times traffic casualties occur, and the bleak foreshadowing is telling on a number of levels. (Perhaps I've said too much here, already.) The themes of gossip, social class, gender expectations, and cultural habits are either lampooned in gentle fashion, or are investigated from all sides. No one is let off the hook, though everyone is treated with compassion. Sibel, engaged to Kemal at the outset, who then leaves him, is drawn with a particularly fine and complex brush. She starts out as a sympathetic character and, as convention has it, would appear to have all moral weight on her side. Yet her closing misunderstanding of Kemal (based on seeing him a day before his death) is superficial, and her fussiness and disingenuousness in protecting her reputation from the petty gossips of her circle, when talking to Pamuk the character, is fascinating in what it tells the reader of life's turns and misdirections. And reassessments. Because however much we understand, in oppositon to the common "who knows?" irresponsibility of the literary present, it's still a work of fiction, and the tone of much of the novel has a very subtle irony, a humour that is both disquieting and pleasurable.

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