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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Museum of Innocence

Orhan Pamuk

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To purchase The Museum of Innocence

Title: The Museum of Innocence
Author: Orhan Pamuk
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 532 pages
Original in: Turkish
Availability: The Museum of Innocence - US
The Museum of Innocence - UK
The Museum of Innocence - Canada
The Museum of Innocence - India
Le musée de l'innocence - France
Das Museum der Unschuld - Deutschland
Il museo dell'innocenza - Italia
El museo de la inocencia - España
  • Turkish title: Masumiyet müzesi
  • Translated by Maureen Freely

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Our Assessment:

B+ : languorous novel of a place and era, nicely (if a bit slowly ...) done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Commentary . 2/2010 Cheryl Miller
Entertainment Weekly B+ 23/10/2009 Keith Staskiewicz
Financial Times . 23/12/2009 Ian Irvine
FAZ . 20/9/2008 Andreas Kilb
The Guardian B+ 9/1/2010 James Lasdun
The Independent . 1/1/2010 Boyd Tonkin
Independent on Sunday . 3/1/2010 James Urquhart
London Rev. of Books . 7/1/2010 Adam Shatz
The LA Times . 21/10/2010 Tim Rutten
NZZ . 9/9/2008 Angela Schader
New Statesman . 11/1/2010 Leo Robson
The NY Rev. of Books . 19/11/2009 Pico Iyer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 1/11/2009 Maureen Howard
The Observer B+ 10/1/2010 Michael Gorra
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Spring 2010 James Crossley
The Spectator . 30/12/2009 James Scudamore
Sunday Times . 3/1/2010 Peter Kemp
The Times . 2/1/2010 Neel Mukherjee
TLS . 6/1/2010 Rónán McDonald
The Washington Post A 20/10/2010 Marie Arana
Die Zeit . 16/10/2008 Walter van Rossum

  Review Consensus:

  Fairly positive -- and like his evocation of time and place (specifically Istanbul)

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Museum of Innocence, Pamuk's first book since winning the Nobel, pulses with the hopeful melancholy of an aching heart, but gets bogged down in family dinners, cinema trips, and midday perambulations." - Keith Staskiewicz, Entertainment Weekly

  • "In calm, elegant prose, Pamuk describes the various stages of Kemal’s passion: erotic obsession, jealousy, despair, the successive waves of hope and fear. He is as accomplished an anatomist of love as Stendhal or Hazlitt in Liber Amoris. Kemal’s narrative crosses decades, assembling a fascinating social world of families, friends and dependants, a rich palimpsest of the lives and mores of Istanbul’s haute bourgeoisie, their parties, dinners, funerals, business deals and raki-fuelled evenings." - Ian Irvine, Financial Times

  • "Es ist eine Geschichte über Klassenunterschiede, Geschlechterrollen und Doppelmoral, die da im Gewand einer Liebestragikomödie erzählt wird -- und zugleich eine Alltagsgeschichte der siebziger Jahre in der Türkei. (...) Die Meisterschaft des Romans gleichen Titels zeigt sich freilich weniger in den Beschreibungen der Sammlungsstücke (die bei genauem Hinsehen reichlich knapp und prosaisch ausfallen) oder den Skizzen der ziellos feiernden, zwischen Orient und Europa, osmanischen Traditionen und europäischen Ambitionen schwankenden Haute volée Istanbuls (auch wenn das knapp fünfzigseitige Kapitel über Kemals Verlobungsfeier zum Besten gehört, was Orhan Pamuk je geschrieben hat). Sie zeigt sich vor allem in der Figur, in der all die Motive, Bilder und Reminiszenzen zusammentreffen, in Kemal Basmaci." - Andreas Kilb, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Though the narrative remains compelling as it darkens from love story to study in florid pathology, it does become, in some ways, problematic. The compulsive pilfering, along with the museum itself, are certainly an inspired variation on the Proustian idea of recoverable time. But having established the conceit, Pamuk doesn't so much develop it as reiterate it. (...) Before anything else, it is simply an enthralling, immensely enjoyable piece of storytelling." - James Lasdun, The Guardian

  • "Stretching over 30 years, but seldom straying far from a few Istanbul neighbourhoods, this is a tale of life-defining desire and devotion marked out in hair-clips and ashtrays, china dogs and ticket stubs, pumpkin seeds and ice-cream cones, salt-shakers and quince graters. Its loving, even relentless, attention to the "the consolation of objects" builds into an overwhelming tribute to "the power of things", which "inheres in the memories they gather up inside them"." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "Far more interesting than the creeping progress of Kemal's shabby suit is Pamuk's underlying theme of the relative position of men and women in Turkey, and the conflict of modern, liberal lifestyles with a traditional society only thinly overlaid by Ataturk's secularism. (...) Mostly Pamuk's characters are sharp and bright, but Kemal languishes rather unsympathetically within an insulating bubble of self-absorption that is undisturbed by the exciting (but far too fleeting) references to martial law, coffee-house bombings and political assassinations. The sheer narcissism of his decade of collecting Füsun-touched ephemera saps energy from an over-long, uneventful novel" - James Urquhart, Independent on Sunday

  • "Formally Pamuk’s most conventional novel, The Museum of Innocence has a modest bag of framing devices, but they’re not too cumbersome (.....) The Museum of Innocence is, apart from anything else, a wry, perceptive novel of manners about the Turkish bourgeoisie." - Adam Shatz, London Review of Books

  • "The Museum of Innocence deeply and compellingly explores the interplay between erotic obsession and sentimentality -- and never once slips into the sentimental. There is a master at work in this book." - Tim Rutten, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Das Museum der Unschuld ist nicht zuletzt eine Liebeserklärung an genau diese unvollkommene materielle Welt, in welcher der Roman handelt. (...) Diese zarte, poetische, mit gleich viel Witz und Melancholie entworfene Liebesgeschichte hat Gerhard Meier in glasklares Deutsch gebracht." - Angela Schader, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "But the novel skips a crucial stage in its portrayal of his obsession. Sensory alertness is a product of interest, not its cause, and Füsun as she appears to us on the page is an implausible spur for Kemal's vividly documented devotion. The best that can be said for her is that she fulfils the western criteria for female beauty at a time when the youth of Istanbul are aspiring to western values. (...) This being a work of fiction published in the 21st century, it inevitably emerges -- later rather than sooner -- that Kemal is in fact a stooge, and his narration an artifice." - Leo Robson, New Statesman

  • "Pamuk's great feat, in this novel, is to evoke the particulars of a society built on received ideas. (...) The Museum of Innocence develops, therefore, into something of a rich and almost-modern Age of Innocence, translated to a confused world that doesn't know quite how modern it wants to be." - Pico Iyer, The New York Review of Books

  • "Part of the delight in The Museum of Innocence is in scouting out the serious games, yet giving oneself over to the charms of Pamuk’s storytelling. He often makes use of genre, turns the expected response to his purpose." - Maureen Howard, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Istanbul's every place and moment of beauty seem as if irradiated by sadness. That makes the novel a modern-day counterpart to the masterpiece Pamuk set in the 16th-century city, My Name Is Red; and certainly it's a richer book than its predecessor, Snow. It does have weaknesses. Most of Kemal's friends are names rather than fully realised characters, and however vivid his desire for Füsun, she herself remains a bit shadowy. The novel, too, could have been shorter. Yet the story isn't so loosely built as it seems, and it's hard to say just which meal or moment of longing should go. The Museum of Innocence earns its length, a length that allows Kemal's story to burrow into us, a habit one looks forward to indulging." - Michael Gorra, The Observer

  • "The wonder is that this solipsistic story is also a broadly social one, creating an evocative picture of a city that’s at once strange and familiar. (...) Whether it’s a public or a private life you want to explore, The Museum of Innocence proves equally compelling." - James Crossley, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "The Museum of Innocence demands patience. Its subject is the weight of a man’s entire experience, and with it comes a Bosphorus of detail. Whether you sink or swim, be prepared to get wet." - James Scudamore, The Spectator

  • "As a study of obsessive sexual and emotional attachment, the novel fails to grip. Where it does exert a hold is in its enthralment with Istanbul." - Peter Kemp, Sunday Times

  • "Beginning in 1975 and narrated from the vantage point of the future, one of the novel’s conceits is that it is a museum catalogue of its exhibits. Reflexive and overdetermined, it is a conceit that fully reveals its rather heavy hand towards the end. (...) It is a novel relentlessly anchored in the materiality of a very real, and very realistically evoked, city, thick with details" - Neel Mukherjee, The Times

  • "One of the many oppositions or paradoxes in The Museum of Innocence is between the chaos of the collection and the regimented, systematic mind of the collector. Notwithstanding the intensity of the feelings depicted, the tone here is cool and direct, even scientific. Eighty-one short chapters, together with a map at the beginning and an index of character names at the end, indicate that the novel, however intimate the subject, is itemized and ordered. Kemal has a liking for lists and numbers. This calm taxonomy counterpoints, or perhaps compensates for, the intensity and abandon of the emotional register, mixing the absurd and poignant. It is an attractive voice, and surely to the credit of Maureen Freely’s translation, that subtle, nuanced social moments and psychological states are caught and rendered without fuss or affect." - Rónán McDonald, Times Literary Supplement

  • "As familiar as the subject of love might seem, The Museum of Innocence is a startling original. Every turn in the story seems fresh, disquieting, utterly unexpected. Like the old Turkish legend of love-struck Ferhat, who literally tunnels through rock to reach the object of his affection, Pamuk's hero, Kemal, finds no obstacle too daunting in the single-minded pursuit of Füsun. (...) For all of its many layers, however, this is a book wholly centered on love and our desperate need to make sense of it." - Marie Arana, The Washington Post

  • "Das Museum der Unschuld ist ein wunderbarer Beleg dafür, wie man mit den Mitteln des Romans der Welt ihren Reichtum, ihre Komplexität, ihre schwierige Schönheit zurückgeben kann -- jenseits der dümmlich ideologischen Raster der gängigen politischen Moralisierung und Kriminalisierung. Es erzählt davon, wie wir bis in unsere intimsten Regungen vergesellschaftet sind und doch nie weniger in der Lage waren, die Gesellschaft im Geflüster unserer Leidenschaften zu entdecken." - Walter van Rossum, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Museum of Innocence is a love story. Narrated almost in its entirety in the voice of Kemal Basmacı, it recounts his decades-spanning passion for a distant relative, Füsun. Soon after he meets her for the first time since she was a child, in 1975 when she is eighteen, they begin a passionate affair, but Kemal is involved with -- and just about to get engaged to -- another woman, Sibel. He loses both women, but eventually reconnects with Füsun -- but she is already married by then, and hence romantically (and sexually) out of reach. Nevertheless, Kemal continues to be obsessed with her, and for years spends many evenings visiting Füsun and her family, even supporting her husband's efforts to make his own movies.
       Kemal becomes a collector: from the beginning he speaks of his 'Museum of Innocence', and introduces readers to pieces that he exhibits in it -- "an illustrated menu, an advertisement, a matchbook, and a napkin" from a restaurant, for example, are among the first items he mentions. These are the often everyday tokens and totems that remind him of the past. During the time when he cannot have Füsun he can at least fall back on these reminders of her, and of his circumstances. Rather than building a future, he clings to the small pieces of the past, as if collecting and assembling them could stop time and allow him the hold that otherwise eludes him. (He is not the only one: when his father dies he notes how his mother doesn't want the sheets changed, clinging to the smell of the beloved deceased that lingers.) By the end, he has taken things to all extremes: among his exhibits are 4213 cigarette butts (smoked by Füsun) under each of which is pinned a note indicating "the date of its retrieval"
       The Museum of Innocence is set in changing times. Most of it takes place in Istanbul, and political upheaval occasionally intrudes upon life, as with the curfews the military governments set that limit how late Kemal can stay with his beloved and her family. Just as Kemal is unable to march clearly into the future -- by marrying and settling down -- so Turkey as a whole seems hesitant in making the transition from a relatively backward country with a single TV channel to a modern state, and so the book is filled with the remnants of the old -- which quickly feel outdated and out of place in the new, modern world and seem to belong in some musty museum .....
       The Museum of Innocence is very much a novel of changing mores. Typically:

     The anxious adherence to the forms of deference that we associate with traditional families -- sitting straight and never crossing one's legs or smoking or drinking in front of one's father -- had over time slowly disappeared.
       Given the fate of its two main characters -- Kemal and Füsun -- there is certainly an implicit suggestion that youth has, indeed, lost its way without the hold and support that is tradition. Certainly, Kemal is particularly at sea, a man who accomplished very little and who, when he does get involved in the (successful) family business, makes his 'business'-decisions based largely on personal motives.
       Among the major shifts in society is the attitude towards pre-marital sex -- at least when women engage in it. Taking on a different tone than the more casual and straightforward one that dominates, Kemal notes that:
     One thousand nine hundred and seventy-five solar years after the birth of Christ, in the Balkans, in the Middle East, and the western and eastern shores of the Mediterranean, as in Istanbul, the city that was the capital of this region, virginity was still regarded as a treasure young girls should protect until the day they married.
       Kemal harps on how important virginity still is, even as attitudes are slowly loosening up. And he manages to if not ruin then at least blemish both his fiancée, Sibel, and Füsun. Sibel's willingness to sleep -- and even shack up -- with him before they're married is tolerated because they're expected to marry; when Kemal fails her in that regard he leaves her with a huge blot that she doesn't seem to mind that much (so he hears, anyway; she doesn't figure in the story after they split up, and he doesn't see her for decades), but which others certainly hold against her.
       Early on, Kemal's brother tells Kemal that: "you sometimes get carried away with your ideas", and it is his obsessiveness -- rather than love itself -- that moves and defines him. Füsun is the object of his desire, but also only an object -- and one defined by the pieces that Kemal has collected over the years, her past -- as defined by this detritus -- as significant as any here and now is.
       A novel of Turkey as it changes in the 1970s and 1980s (and, to a lesser extend, beyond that), and especially of Istanbul, it's no surprise that when, after many years, Kemal and Füsun find an opportunity to get closer again:
     To become reacquainted with each other as we explored the city, to see an undiscovered part of Istanbul each day, and an unknown side of Füsun -- it was a pleasure that constantly renewed itself.
       Tellingly, too, the plans for a trip to Europe proper go terribly awry, with Füsun all in a tizzy about the preparations: Istanbul is their anchor and foundation, and to go beyond it leaves them with even less of a hold.
       There are a few more games in the novel, too -- including the appearance of an Orhan Pamuk at Kemal and Sibel's engagement party. When this is mentioned Kemal writes:
But when our museum was established, Mr.Orhan Pamuk recalled that Füsun had danced with two people early on.
       Both with the mention of "our museum", and given that Kemal draws not only on his own memory but, years in the future, also relies on Pamuk's, this brief passage already suggests a greater role for Pamuk in this text than is immediately evident .....
       The Museum of Innocence goes on for rather a long time in that interim-limbo where Kemal pines for Füsun, but cannot have her -- before then rather quickly offering a resolution, leading to a re-doubled immersion in the world of collectors and museums (Kemal goes on to visit 1743 of them ...) which is barely dwelt on at all. It's a quick and almost too abrupt transition where Pamuk slightly loses his balance, and makes for an underwhelming conclusion (despite its great potential).
       With its map of Istanbul, and an index of the characters appearing in the text, The Museum of Innocence is given added documentary trappings: this is a personal love story, but clearly also a novel of a time and place.
       Pamuk has a bit of difficulty conveying Kemal's long, sustained passion, especially when there is no escape from the everyday -- dinner and TV with Füsun and her family, without the possibility of doing anything more than speaking with her and staring at her -- and Pamuk even has a chapter in which he lists the things they would sometimes do ("Sometimes, we'd do nothing but sit there in silence" it begins, appropriately enough). Nevertheless, there's much to be said for all this bulk, as it is the small asides, including of the political and social turmoil all around, that, in sum -- like all the small pieces in an exhaustive museum exhibit -- add up to a revealing picture.
       Not entirely a success, but an appealing, unhurried work of fiction.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 March 2010

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The Museum of Innocence: Reviews: Orhan Pamuk: Other books by Orhan Pamuk under review: Other books of interest under review under review:

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About the Author:

       Internationally acclaimed Turkish author Orhan Pamuk was born in 1952. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2006.

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© 2010-2022 the complete review

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