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The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

Faber and Faber, 2009, 734 p. Translated from the Turkish, Masumiyet Müzesi, by Maureen Freely.

 The Museum of Innocence cover

This is the tale of our narrator, Kemal Basmacı, a relatively well to do son of a Turkish business man, though he would say it was that of the love of his life, his distant not-quite relative, the shopgirl Füsun Keskin. As the novel starts Kemal is enjoying his carefree lifestyle, helping to run his father’s business, plus having sex with his intended, Sibel. A few weeks before their engagement party he meets Füsun again (they had been childhood acquaintances) and the pair take to making love in the afternoons. Being Turkey in the 1970s – though actually extra-marital relations were not entirely comment free then even in the West; certainly not in Scotland – the potential for ruin of her reputation is extreme. When Kemal falls in love with Füsun the outlines of a tragedy are in place.

Like a lot of novels set in repressive settings (not only for example in Egypt (The Yacoubian Building) but also Soviet era Czechoslovakia (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) the importance of sex infuses the story. More importantly here, it is the question of a woman’€™s virginity, or lack of it, on marriage that creates Kemal’s dilemma, Füsun’s family’s response to that problem a formidable obstacle to a happy resolution. The Museum of Innocence is trading on the perennial great themes of literature through the ages; love, sex and death. At one point the narrator opines that a love story with a happy ending is pretty well not worth telling. His mother (too late) tells him that in a country where men and women can’€™t be together socially, can’€™t even have a conversation, there is no such thing as love. If any woman shows interest the man is conditioned to pounce on her like a starving animal.

The Museum of Innocence of the novel’€™s title is Kemal’€™s shrine to Füsun’s memory. The narrative is like the museum’€™s catalogue, a description of the various stages of their relationship, exhibits of all the items Kemal has collected which connected her to him. In some places it as if the museum’€™s curator is speaking to us. A bit of meta-fictional post-modern gamesmanship occurs when an entry ticket to the museum is printed on one of the pages and also when the novelist Orhan Pamuk intrudes into his own novel as a very minor character. This is finessed in the final chapter by a not wholly convincing device which nevertheless confers a degree of perspective on Kemal’s story.

The evocation of Turkish life is interesting, its teetering on the brink of what Kemal’€™s crowd saw as modernity, its conflict with tradition. The vicissitudes of Turkish politics of the time, the civil strife, the military coups, the saturation with Atatürk’€™s image and memory, are mentioned but more or less in passing; indeed are there to point up that life went on notwithstanding them. Pamuk’€™s implicit critique of Turkish mores isn’t overstated, though. A salient feature was the tendency of the characters to smoke cigarettes. The fug of burnt tobacco almost leaps off the page: the book could come with a health warning. Is it the same still in Turkey, I wonder?

Kemal’€™s narration is measured, even, and his actions presented as reasonable but they are certainly obsessed and smack of a kind of madness. This is not unknown to Pamuk, of course. In the last chapter Kemal is referred to as “€œnot quite right in the head.” Obsessive love is a kind of madness, I suppose. The novel and the Museum are presented as Kemal’s attempts to reclaim the sense of his own life from others’ interpretation of it. He may be deluded, but like Hamlet said, there is method in it.

The translation is into USian, but that was fine; Kemal had spent some time in the US in his youth. (There was only one sentence which struck me as awkward. In 700 odd pages that’€™s not bad going.)

In such a long story it is hard to avoid longueurs. That Pamuk broadly manages this despite more or less nothing happening to progress Kemal’€™s situation for many years is testament to his ability. I’ll be reading more of Pamuk.

Art Deco Drawings

On Sunday I was over in Glasgow. (The good lady was at something called Creative Stitches in the SECC. While she was there I hied myself off to the new Transport Museum called the Riverside Museum. No photos: she had the camera and my mobile is so old it doesn’t do photos. Not that I ever use it anyway.)

The Riverside has a modern architectural design which reminds me of a cardiogram and is full of cars, trains, trams etc with a West of Scotland interest, plus there’s a tall ship moored on the Clyde alongside. Worth a visit.

Anyway afterwards we took in an antique centre/warehouse where I spotted some architectural drawings from the 1930s. They seem to have been produced by a third year student at an architectural college. Very Deco.

By this time the camera was available to me.

This one was for a lakeside restaurant.

Art Deco Architectural Drawing 2 close up

The others were for Sports Centres.

Art Deco Architectural Drawing 1(ii)

Art Deco Architectural Drawing 1(i)

Art Deco Architectural Drawings 1 (iii) close up

I don’t know if any of these buildings were ever erected.

The person selling the drawings wanted £45 for the three Sports Centre drawings; which I thought was a bit steep for bits of paper peeling at the edges. (I couldn’t get close enough to the lakeside restaurant one to see its price.)

Fuller pictures of the drawings are on my flickr.

Haworth

And so via East Lancashire and West Yorkshire to Haworth. We came over the moors from Hebden Bridge through Oxenhope. This was very atmospheric as the mist was rolling around the hilltops, though not as bleak as I had been expecting and very reminiscent of moorland Scotland.

While the town of Haworth is well enough signposted the Brontë Parsonage Museum wasn’t until we had almost passed it. The village from their time we would have completely missed were it not for the museum signpost. The photo is of the original part of the building as it was in the Brontë’s time. An addition to the right was made by a later incumbent who had a sizable income.

Brontë Parsonage Museum Haworth

The museum society’s web site is here.

The rooms are/were tiny. How they crammed two adults and four children plus servants in there is a miracle. It’s worth a visit on its own and the staff (all volunteers I believe) were very friendly. The talk and more especially the tour outside afterward were very good indeed.

When the Brontës lived there, Haworth was essentially one cobbled street on a steep hill. The old village was more or less shut when we were there, though. I think the shops – almost all Brontë or tourist related – do most of their trade on a weekend.

The church was/is down the hill a wee bit from the parsonage, separated from it by the cemetery but still uphill of the village, though. At that time table top burials (with flat, not upright, gravestones) remained in use in Yorkshire though they’d been phased out elsewhere. Apparently Haworth was the unhealthiest place in England then. The Rev Brontë was never done taking funerals. We were told that there were 42,000 dead in the cemetery – this in a space not much bigger than a penalty area!

The nature and density of the burials meant that the corpses didn’t decompose properly. Sometimes they were dug up and burned to make room for later bodies. When it rained, ground water from the graveyard would drain under the church and rise up through the floor. The smell must have been appalling. This stuff along with raw sewage would also have flowed down the street. What with that and the overcrowding – Haworth was extremely densely populated with loads of mills and such – no wonder the death rate was so high.

The views now are not at all bleak, rather pleasant actually, but it was hopelessly remote in the early nineteenth century and must have seemed like the end of the earth. Modern Haworth lies mainly across the valley from the old village.

There was a nice (twentieth century) park at the bottom of the hill, too.

Striking Architecture

One strange thing we learned about Chester is that it’s in Wales – in the televisual sense at least. Button 4 on the remote in the B&B had S4C and Channel 4 was on button 8. I think the border is actually right on Chester-€™s outskirts but it still seemed strange.

We left Chester and headed east to view some modern architecture. I took the A56 because I was fed up with motorways and knew the road passed close to our destination.

As a result of this we travelled through Altrincham, Sale and Stretford, encountering quite a few Art Deco cinemas, shops and houses on the way but I have no pictures as I was driving.

At Salford we were directed down Matt Busby Way past the Theatre of Debts Dreams and on to Daniel Libeskind’s building for the Imperial War Museum North. This photo was taken from across the Manchester Ship Canal.

Imperial War Museum North.

The first thing I noticed on getting out of the car in the car park I instantly recognised as a Soviet designed tank. (The good lady wondered how I knew but they’re just so distinctive.) It’s in desert camouflage since it’s a T-55 as used by the Iraqi army and was captured by British forces during the second Gulf War.

Tank outside Imperial War Museum North

There’€™s a T-34 inside the museum. (When I see Second World War footage of those I always think they look like Daleks. It’€™s probably the way the gun sticks out.) Also among the exhibits are a Harrier Jump Jet – which had to be craned in before the roof was put on – a gun turret from a Wellington bomber – tiny inside – and a German floating mine laid at Scarborough in World War 1.

The building’€™s shape and form were explained by the tour guide (from whom we got a hug: but don’€™t get your hopes up – she went to school with our younger son’€™s girlfriend, and we’€™d met before.)

The unusual shape is based on a fragmented world with three shards representing Earth, Air and Water – the three arenas for war. Apparently there was to be a fourth symbolising Fire – highly appropriate to war, as well as matching the four ancient Greek Elements -€“ however, the project’€™s funding didn’€™t permit that. The audio visual displays projected onto the inside walls are very effective.

We spent four hours inside and wondered where the time had gone. It’€™s well worth a visit.

A spot of lunch (late) and then over the Ship Canal to the Lowry, designed by Michael Wilford and started in 1997. We were told the building is supposed to resemble a steamship. My photo is a stitch of two taken from the War Museum side.

The Lowry Salford

More details are on the Lowry website.

There were lots of Lowry paintings, of course -€“ some not of matchstalk men: mostly the early ones before his style settled. In “€œGoing To The Match”€ he captures perfectly that stooped-over walk men used to have when walking to a football match. Others of the pictures show this stooping too, though, so maybe it’s a Northern England thing.

There are some of Lowry’€™s landscapes here too but none was as good as his riverscape that we saw in the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery in Glasgow.

We then spent some time in the Lowry Retail Outlet just across the plaza.

The area has been cleaned up since it was industrial. There were scullers taking advantage of the calm water. The new BBC premises in Manchester are under construction a stone’€™s throw away off a branch of the Canal. (See the cranes in the photo above.) I hope from the outside that will be more interesting than the vast shoe box they recently built in Glasgow – which is stunning inside instead; but that’s a bit pointless really.

The footbridge across the Ship Canal between the two museums is interesting as it’€™s on a lift; or rather two lifts – a kind of modern equivalent of the Transporter Bridge at Middlesbrough. There’s a photo on the Lowry site of it raised to allow a ship through.

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