Istanbul: Or How I Fell Under a Novel’s Spell


My family and I had traversed the Galata Bridge in a taxi at 3 a.m. on the way to Atatürk Airport. My nine-year-old had looked out at the glowing mosques and bridges over the Bosphorus with drooping eyelids. Many hours later, I wasn’t just jetlagged; I was shocked by the flat quiet of Boston.

Yet the morning after I returned from my first trip to Istanbul, I was in a fever to finish Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence. I’d been racing through the last chapters of his 500-plus-page novel on the plane, even as it taxied to a stop at Logan Airport. It felt like I had to complete the book before America and my normal life rushed back in.

I loved Istanbul; I was overwhelmed by it. The thing is, I didn’t love The Museum of Innocence when I began it, and the experience of reluctantly coming under its spell felt something like the impact of the city itself.


"Blue Mosque in Istanbul"; courtesy of Martha Nichols


About midway through Pamuk’s 2008 novel, I was tempted to cast it aside; toward the end, when I’d fully committed myself, I still inwardly groaned at chapter titles like “4,213 Cigarette Stubs.” At one point, I almost started Michael Crichton’s Pirate Latitudes as an antidote.

The storyline of The Museum of Innocence is minimal. Kemal, a businessman in his thirties from a wealthy Istanbul family, meets eighteen-year-old Füsun, a “shop girl” and “distant relation” in the mid-1970s. He falls recklessly in love with her, even though he’s already engaged to someone else.

Kemal is unable to do what Turkish society would have him do: make the shop girl his mistress and lead a double life. Meanwhile, once Füsun loses her virginity, she feels forced to marry a young filmmaker. The star-crossed lovers pine for each other for years, many of which Kemal spends sitting in Füsun’s living room, watching melodramatic Turkish films on TV with her parents.

The pace of these chapters isn’t just leisurely; it trudges forward like an old lady in a headscarf. When things finally seem to look up, Kemal gushes, “After all, a love story that ends happily scarcely deserves more than a few sentences!” By that equation, this story doesn’t have a happy ending. At all.

But the pace wasn’t my real problem. I struggled with this novel because I didn’t like its first-person narrator. At times, I loathed Kemal’s arrogance, his cluelessness. I told my husband I was soldiering on with the book, despite its weepy, whiny protagonist, who seemed to be telling the same story over and over—as if his small tragedies matter much more than anyone else’s.

Kemal is an unreliable narrator, of course, which did intrigue me from the start. In the opening paragraph, he’s making love to Füsun. The act is described in explicit detail—an obvious hook for readers—but the obsessiveness and overwrought language evoke Humbert Humbert:

“[O]n the afternoon of Monday, May 26, 1975, at about a quarter to three, just as we felt ourselves to be beyond sin and guilt so too did the world seem to be released from gravity and time. Kissing Füsun’s shoulder, already moist from the heat of our lovemaking, I gently entered her from behind…. Our bliss was so profound that we went on kissing, heedless of the fall of the earring, whose shape I had not even noticed.”

The loss and eventual return of Füsun’s earring becomes a leitmotif throughout—again, with an obviousness that’s akin to Chekhov’s maxim about a gun that must go off by the final act.

More than that, it’s an ordinary object, one that only has significance to these particular people. Yet, Kemal insists it has a larger meaning—just as a novelist does with his childhood madeleines, or Füsun with the doves and sparrows she paints from the trapped perspective of her window.

In his later years, Kemal collects a house full of mementos related to his love, turning them into an actual museum. These objects include everything from those lipstick-stained cigarette butts to old postcards to a quince grater belonging to Füsun’s mother.

I still can’t view him as a tragic hero. But despite this unlikely mix of high and low, Pamuk pulls it off, in ways that surprised me as much as Nabokov’s Lolita. I gradually realized that I, the reader, was colluding with Kemal’s critics, all those who kept telling him to buck up, who had no sympathy.

And it’s the specificity of Pamuk’s Istanbul that made my own visit there transcendent. Pamuk, who won the Nobel Prize in 2006, revels in doubleness, in many-sided identities. In his books, he often renders his city lovingly as well as with biting satire (and he’s gotten in trouble with the authorities for the latter). He jumps around in Turkish history, sometimes within a single novel, and the layers of competing cultures—of Sultans and the Europeanized bourgeoisie of the twentieth century—is a complex brew.


Istiklal Avenue at Sunset”; courtesy of Martha Nichols


That brew is Istanbul, which I found impossible to pin down during our five-day stay. At one point in The Museum of Innocence, Kemal and Füsun take a swim in the Bosphorus, which Kemal describes as feeling “like a dream, this sense I had of being far from the city and my own past.”:

“[W]hen I saw how far away the shore was, I was afraid. The city surrounded us, the European shore now seeming almost as distant as the Asian shore behind us. There was Tarabaya Bay, and the Huzur, the restaurant where we’d eaten on many occasions, and all the other restaurants lining the shore…and the cars, minibuses, and red buses snaking along the shore road, and the hills rising above it, and the shantytowns above Büyükdere—the entire city had receded.”

Istanbul is very easy for a tourist to love. Yet, the city is also difficult to grasp. I still find myself amazed by the endless crowds on Istiklal Avenue, the mile-long trendy pedestrian street where women in burqas jostle against those in halters and stilettos.

We stayed in an apartment near Taksim Square at the top end of Istiklal. A mosque on the corner played loud calls to prayer. Kemal and Füsun also visit cafes and patisseries on this street; Füsun’s family lived in nearby Çukurkuma, and one day my son and I walked up the steep hill very near where Kemal’s fictional Museum of Innocence is located.

As the days wore on and I fell under the city’s spell along with the novel’s, I found the map at the front of The Museum of Innocence more helpful than anything in our Lonely Planet guide.

With all those crooked, shifting streets, navigation through that old neighborhood is a metaphor for all the other changes—from military coups and leftist bombs in the 1980s to strikes now in nearby Greece and Turkey’s increasingly hopeless bid to make it into the EU.

Kemal concludes: “Because all the objects in my museum—and with them, my entire story—can be seen at the same time from any perspective, visitors will lose all sense of Time. This is the greatest consolation in life.”

It’s also the great consolation of art. The Museum of Innocence reminds me of why literary works require time and patience, as do unfamiliar cities and cultures. Time is something this driven, middle-class American rarely has, but when I’m lucky enough to seize the hours to read a challenging novel like this, it’s the best kind of vacation.


2 thoughts on “Istanbul: Or How I Fell Under a Novel’s Spell

  1. Yes, I want to read Pamuk’s biography of the city–and I want to return to Turkey for a much longer stretch. Nice to see you here, Padraig.

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