Dear Orhan sir,
I write to you after having finished your deeply engaging book, The Museum of Innocence.
I would want to congratulate you for such a delightful, thoughtful, well-composed piece of art, which as one of the comments in the blurb rightly reads, is ‘worthy to stand in the company of Lolita, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina.’
I was visited by some thoughts, opinions and ideas while reading the book, and those, I would want to highlight, mention and discuss in the ensuing letter.
Even though, in the beginning itself, the plot line unfurls into the “boy-and-girl-fall-in-love/ they-don’t-end-up-together/ one-of-them-marries-someone-else/ the-other-transcends-human-boundaries-in-the-pursuit-of-love” theme, the power and alacrity of your writing made me clutch to the what-will-happen-next-ism throughout the 730 odd pages! In my humble opinion, to work with a theme visited so often by so many, and imbuing it with a life of its own, such that, this story of unrequited love reads as good as fresh, and so, manages to hold the attention of us readers, is a remarkable, remarkable feat! Kudos!
I was particularly enchanted by your ‘handling’ of ‘Time’. The book almost read like a modern-day embodiment of the Proustian notion of ‘recovering lost time’. That your protagonist, Kemal, in his monumental obsession with the past, attempts to recapture the past by collecting his beloved’s things (starting from earrings to cigarette stubs to cinema tickets to a summer dress to to ceramic dog figurines to underwear and quite literally all manner of things) which he hoards throughout the 500 odd pages after he loses her, dwelling upon them by touching, caressing, rubbing and feeling them over and over again, drives the point home.
But, but, but the fact that she was still very much alive when his obsessions with objects related to Fusun’s began, made me feel that the whole ‘point’ of his thirty-five/ forty year long endeavour hadn’t been to really ‘rescue’ or pull out Fusun from her unhappy, loveless marriage, but to give shape to his own obsessions; which again, at a deeper level had a strong narcissistic, self-fulfilling dimension.
This brings me to a few questions that I wanted to ask you, sir; questions which ought to be treated with some significance, as they are primarily about the nature and depiction of unrequited love in literature.
It wouldn’t be too off-handish to say that Kemal Bismasci stands in the long line of literary protagonists beginning from Bluebeard to Anna Karenina to Miss Havisham(Great Expectations) to Devdas to Humbert Humber(Lolita) to Florentino Ariza(Love in the Time of Cholera), as pursuers of a seemingly impossible love.
That’s a delectable idea! One that has made readers of all ages and times stay enamoured with one or all of the above.
Of course, these characters themselves have inspired much of what we as ‘normal’ human beings fall short of in the course of our normal lives, and that is why they are admired, loved, adored and sympathised with to the point of veneration.
However, there is one aspect of this equation has always troubled me. A few months ago the reading group I am a part of were reading that great American Jazz-age novel; The Great Gatsby. Although I had read that book during my college days, and have had always harboured the deepest regard for Scott Fitzgerald’s sparkling prose, there was something, something very intricate and abstract that had disturbed me about the whole ‘idea’ of it.
Likewise, there had been something which didn’t quite ‘sit’ right, after I and Kemal were done with our respective tribulations i.e. he with his own, and I with his, respectively.
Tracing back to the notes I had made about The Great Gatsby, a question, or rather one of the several questions I had jotted at the end of the book came glaringly to me, and at once made me realise what it was that had troubled me, so to say, about Gatsby and Kemal and Florentino and the rest. And it is this:
In all these seemingly larger than life stories, there is a stark difference, almost a deliberate chasm between the pursuer and the one being pursued. Difference, in terms of the depth, strength and range of characterisation. In short, I have always felt, in spite of my deep enchantment and preoccupation with monumental love stories, that the problem (if there is any) lies in the characterisation itself.
It is never meant to be a love story among equals, at any rate. In order to heighten passion, to deepen that extraordinary chasm in which characters like Florentino and Kemal fall into, in pursuit of their obsessions, it just can’t remain a love among equals.
And hence, the more fervently these towering romantics pursue their love interests, the farther away they plunge themselves from them.
I mean, Fermina Daza (the heroine in Love in the Time of Cholera) lived a relatively ‘normal’ life with Juvenal Urbino (her loving, caring husband) throughout the story, while Florentino, the love-letter-writing, sexually-philandering, brooding, almost-Byronic Florentino takes centre stage through the 220 odd pages.
The reader is not quite sure whether the gap between what he believes (his ‘undying love and fidelity’ to Fermina) and what he does (his string of extremely provocative lovers, beginning from the Widow Nazerath to the sixteen year old he seduces in the backroom of his office, totalling more than 500 in his lifetime) can be safely fit into any single moral or ethical bracket!
Maybe this moral ambivalence is what makes him such a loved and enigmatic character.
And the fact is that Florentino, as a character, jumbled as he is with his obsessions, his preoccupations, his towering romanticism; is what gives the story its marrow!
Likewise, Gatsby too falls in the same line. His credentials are doubtable from the start. But to judge him according to the diktats of conventional morality would be both parochial and limited. Something that my reading group folks did, to my utter bewilderment! Unlike Gatsby, Daisy (Gatsby’s love interest) is a fun-loving, ‘nice’ girl, who after her unsuccessful affair with Gatsby, gets married to a rich, carbuncular bloke, very much in confirming to the conventions of the Age.
The plot again, as from the title, derives its strength from Gatsby’s character.
That he too, like Florentino, wades the waters of moral ambivalence, while still preserving, or giving an impression of preserving that which is most sacred in us; the picture of the brooding, solitary, countenance of the hero(or anti-hero) looking hypnotically at the ‘green light’ far, far away, gives the book its name and its soul.
Coming to The Museum of Innocence, I feel a similar pattern evolves.
When I sat and starting envisaging Fusun as a character, as a normal living person, true! I was taken by her beauty, her skin, her lips. You did make her physically at least, irresistible.
But when I started envisaging her depth and moral fortitude, I am sorry, but there was more disappointment than I wanted to to admit to myself. Because frankly, (and at the risk of sounding reductive), I could see a girl, a very, very beautiful girl, but one who didn’t have the gumption, the moral or spiritual depth that would warrant the erection of a monument in her name!!
Kemal, who initially comes across as a misguided, delusional man, grows with the suffering that life brings upon him. Or he himself brings upon himself, at any rate.
But Fusun, with every turn in the story, manages to pale and finally fade away.
To be frank, when she dies, I was immensely pained. In fact, I refrained from picking up the book for a few days. The whole point seemed to be lost.
But once I picked it up again, having gotten over my disappointment at Kemal’s tragedy, Fusun’s death seemed like a logical step towards determining the fate of Kemal’s obsession, which had by now taken shape of a new, sinister, more domineering character in the book.
This happened because of the inherent flaw of the story: for Kemal, subconsciously, what was more important from the beginning were the ‘objects’. The more the story progressed; I felt, the more his obsessions with ‘objects’ took hold of him. To a point where in Fusun’s death only acted like a motif that would clear the way for him to bring his original preoccupation to its logical end i.e. to build a Museum to commemorate his object of affection.
In essence, I felt, it wasn’t a story about love at all! (As can be seen in most plot lines, wherein the ‘thing-in-itself’ slowly looses its value as compared to the narcissistic, self-fulfilling obsession of the hero, until the two become wholly separate!)
It was how Kemal, through his love for Fusun satiates his obsession, rather than it being the other way round.
Maybe the ‘feminists’ would remark that Fusun was merely an ‘object’ here, a sad, oppressed object (Yes sir! I felt as a reflection of Turkish society’s attitude towards women, her portrayal was both sad and real, and it really took me thorough re-reading of some of the parts, to discern how subtly you have brought out the tribulations of living as a woman in Turkish society during the 70s and 80s. For this too, I must congratulate you and thank you for making this book, or at least some of the passages, a thing of beauty, which I must say, will be a joy forever.)
I think, in this regard then, Nobakov, that wise old bird, is closest to the humanity and the human imperfections of love.
In Lolita, Humbert Humbert is always ‘consciously’ aware of his obsession with Lolita. And unlike Kemal or Florentino, no rapturous expression of love issues from him.
Rather, the nature of his desire is desire itself.
Encapsulated in, ‘Lolita! The fire of my loins-…‘, he is at once clear that his desire is to ‘sexually possess’ the nymph. (I would have liked to allude to Elfriede Jelnik’s work here, but I think that would be pulling the string too far!)
Deification if any, is for the ‘thing-it-self’, in the clearest of terms. And this is why; his monstrosity (at having destroyed the childhood of that child) seems utterly horrific, yet believable.
And so does his redemption.
There was something else that really got me thinking, sir.
Kemal says, at one point, that he is ‘the anthropologist of his own experience’. I found it rather moving, but then again, the inherent irony and injustice of it disturbed me.
I found asking myself, almost instantaneously, as to ‘who then is the anthropologist of Fusun’s experience?’.
She, who at the age of eighteen, went through what maybe a darn traumatic experience, not the heartbreak, but the loss of virginity, and struggled against Feridun(her husband) and more importantly against Kemal’s insecurities to realise her dreams (which she doesn’t achieve by the end) of becoming an actress, was, by the end of the book monumentalised!
I don’t know whether this subtle sense of irony was deliberate or comes from the fact that the story, despite its flouting the limits of realistic human convention, maintained heartbreaking verisimilitude, which only made this irony poignant still!
But yes, I couldn’t escape it.
Did she have a voice? Or as WH Auden would have asked, “was she happy?”, the question becomes irrelevant, as the centre of the novel, since it was a love story, is the realisation of the main protagonist’s flawed vision of love, and not the reality, and humanity which comes to fore in a more realistic depiction and enactment of love.
Hence, I felt, to conclude, that the premise of the story, even though extremely well-justified through its rendering and the writing, was still flawed.
Flawed, because tried as it might to wrestle the inherent injustice pervading all stories about or extolling unrequited/ unfulfilled love, it ultimately contradicted the idea of love by dwelling in that which comes after it, memory.
Yet, it was still just as delightful, just as readable, just as evocative.
I would end this by once again congratulating you. It was a delightful, haunting read.
As a matter of fact, I would confess, that it did make me go back to all the various love-letters and other objects I have collected over the years.
I too still preserve a few set of earrings, some musty pages, a pen that doesn’t write anymore, a cigarette case, a paper weight which still has filigrees of fingerprints over them; all these things presented of course by different people at different junctures, yet, telling the same story, again and again: that to totally forget something is the hardest thing, after all.
Although whether displaying them to the public eye would render them as ‘innocent’ artefacts, I am not quite sure!
This brings me to another thing I wanted to compliment you about. I got to know about the real time museum(by the same name) you put together in Istanbul; a structure that not only celebrates and embodies and preserves the objects Kemal collects throughout the story, but also documents, in a tenderly intimate fashion, Istanbul society during the time period of the novel.
I would want to include some photographs of the Museum here for the benefit of the readers here, in order to pique their curiosity and interest in the book and the Museum. I am also looking forward to visiting the Museum soon.
(Kemal manages to collect the 4213 cigarette butts that Fusun smokes over a period ten years)
(The Interior of the Museum. It has got 83 cabinets, signifying the 83 chapters in the book, and various prominent objects mentioned there)
Anyway, I suppose I have already made this longer than I had intended it to be.
Here is to love. Here is to memory. And here is to museums.
A committed, faithful reader