Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Museum of pathological obsession

feelings seeping out of the filters
Feelings seeping out of the filters by waferboard. Used under CC BY 2.0)
This is a book review two years too late but deserving of being typed out. I had nearly six hours to kill before my connecting flight to India, so I bought myself Orhan Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence. The storyline seemed interesting enough: the tale of a Turkish man, Kemal, torn between the aristocratic and savvy fiancée or his utterly ravishing, shop girl cousin. The story is set in the political scene of Istanbul in the Seventies with beautiful descriptions of the streets and the restaurants and the divide between the upper and lower classes. Kemal is a man who wants to have his cake and eat it too: in keeping with the cultural mandates, his fiancée Sibel, has pledged her virginity to him while Kemal has taken up lodgings in another part of the city and busy cashing in that same pledge with his distant cousin, Fusun. They meet here often and the young children playing soccer outside are oblivious to the events that are transpiring within the stuffy confines of their room. A gentle breeze blows to cool the heated passion of the lovers who know that the future offers them two choices: defy society and come out with their affair or allow this ephemeral encounter to be but a sweet memory to be called upon later as a soothing balm in moments of marital turbulence. Kemal goes for door number two and even has the nerve to bring Fusun to his grand wedding reception. It becomes clear that Kemal has played Fusun and has partaken of the nectar, but is unwilling to defy his family and face Sibel's wrath. At this juncture, our sympathies are with Fusun and we curse Kemal for taking advantage of a young girl's heart. The story is getting interesting, right?  Things start getting downright weird from this point on. Kemal starts seeing Fusun everywhere. Every woman on the street seems to bear resemblance to his beloved Fusun. He realizes that the physical relations he had were the seeds of a blossoming love for Fusun. He lets his business go as he spends more time and effort tracking down Fusun's friends and playmates, trying desperately to reconnect to her; to tell her he made a mistake-- oh please take me back, Fusun!

Finally he manages to get the address and on a rainy night, his chauffeur pulls up to a modest looking home in the city's less affluent communities. Kemal finally meets Fusun, but she drops the bomb we've been expecting all along: she's married to a director wannabe hack! Kemal now sinks to levels that even a man at the end of his rope would condemn as utterly deplorable. He visits Fusun's home and dines at the family table (the poor family loves the rich distant cousin who visits with gifts), he decides to payroll Feridun to make films in which his wife Fusun plays the star. Kemal develops a habit for nicking objects like china dogs, handkerchiefs and disgustingly enough, cigarette butts that Fusun has discarded. Slowly the family realizes that objects are missing and that Cousin Kemal is good enough to brush aside protests and buy them new items to replace the ones that have disappeared (“They weren't good anyway”, he says). The family puts up with the private shame of Cousin Kemal lusting for their daughter while Fusun exacts her revenge for having her heart broken, her chances of a high-end lifestyle destroyed and for marrying a man she probably never loved just to advance her career in acting.

My only complaint is that the protagonist drowns in an ocean of his own inadequacy. He collects 4,213 cigarette butts smoked by Fusun and to make this disturbing act even more so, labels each of them to reflect the way they're half smoked or snubbed out. A trace of lipstick on each butt proves they've touched the lips of the unreachable woman; a woman who Kemal himself put of his reach by his own actions. To make matters worse, Kemal is now obsessed with the Fusun who made love to him back in his apartment ten years ago. He transports all his pilfered items to the same apartment room and starts his “museum”-- a place to commemorate the piece of Fusun whom he has painstakingly chipped away. At the end of the novel, the museum is thrown open to the public to commemorate the lives of these two star-crossed lovers and a “ticket” to the museum is provided to the reader by Orhan himself who appears in a cameo in his own novel (Chetan Bhagat, please take notes).

All in all, a painful book to read because of endless repetitions, the pathological obsession with Fusun and a general lack of fleshing out of characters. We all know Fusun is a rustic beauty; craved sexually by all members of the opposite sex, but that aside, we don't know much about her and what makes her tick.
Now, in an eerie series of developments, Orhan has actually built a real museum to celebrate the lives of his fictional characters. He had purchased postcards, shirts and dresses for his real life museum even as his fictional museum was taking shape. You would imagine that a man who appears in his own novels to emphasize that the work that one is reading is fiction, wouldn't blur the lines between reality and fiction himself, but there you have it. A weary 600 odd page book about a museum of pilfered knick-knacks and a real building of knick-knacks that mirrors the novel. Which came first? That's a chicken an egg story that we can't quite call.

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