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The Museum of Innocence Reader’s Guide

By Orhan Pamuk

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

READERS GUIDE

An enchanting tale of romantic obsession and shifting cultural mores, The Museum of Innocence, Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk’s seventh novel, follows the well-stationed Kemal and his lifelong quest to possess the beautiful shopgirl Füsun. Sacrificing everything his family and friends deem valuable, Kemal honors his love through transports of the imagination and an ever-growing collection of mementos. With his planned exhibition, Kemal wants “the world to take pride in the lives they live” (p. 518). Yet under Pamuk’s skilled direction, The Museum of Innocence also becomes, as Maureen Howard wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “the writer’s claim to his workroom, where the gallery of his dreams displays not ephemera devoted to delusion but close attention to the ‘beauty of ordinary life.’”

Introduction

It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn’t know it.” So begins the new novel, his first since winning the Nobel Prize, from the universally acclaimed author of Snow and My Name Is Red.It is 1975, a perfect spring in Istanbul. Kemal, scion of one of the city’s wealthiest families, is about to become engaged to Sibel, daughter of another prominent family, when he encounters Füsun, a beautiful shopgirl and a distant relation. Once the long-lost cousins violate the code of virginity, a rift begins to open between Kemal and the world of the Westernized Istanbul bourgeosie—a world, as he lovingly describes it, with opulent parties and clubs, society gossip, restaurant rituals, picnics, and mansions on the Bosphorus, infused with the melancholy of decay—until finally he breaks off his engagement to Sibel. But his resolve comes too late.For eight years Kemal will find excuses to visit another Istanbul, that of the impoverished backstreets where Füsun, her heart now hardened, lives with her parents, and where Kemal discovers the consolations of middle-class life at a dinner table in front of the television. His obsessive love will also take him to the demimonde of Istanbul film circles (where he promises to make Füsun a star), a scene of seedy bars, run-down cheap hotels, and small men with big dreams doomed to bitter failure.In his feckless pursuit, Kemal becomes a compulsive collector of objects that chronicle his lovelorn progress and his afflicted heart’s reactions: anger and impatience, remorse and humiliation, deluded hopes of recovery, and daydreams that transform Istanbul into a cityscape of signs and specters of his beloved, from whom now he can extract only meaningful glances and stolen kisses in cars, movie houses, and shadowy corners of parks. A last change to realize his dream will come to an awful end before Kemal discovers that all he finally can possess, certainly and eternally, is the museum he has created of his collection, this map of a society’s manners and mores, and of one man’s broken heart.

A stirring exploration of the nature of romantic attachment and of the mysterious allure of collecting, The Museum of Innocence also plumbs the depths of an Istanbul half Western and half traditional—its emergent modernity, its vast cultural history. This is Orhan Pamuk’s greatest achievement.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. How do modern European culture and Turkish tradition affect the attitudes and actions of the novel’s characters? Are the tensions between both societies reconciled or accommodated?

2. On page 37, Kemal states that his parents were not religious yet they retained many religious customs and traditions. What role does religion play in the novel? In Pico Iyer’s laudatory review in The New York Review of Books, he writes that “As in [Pamuk’s memoir] Istanbul, though even more so, memory becomes a kind of religion, and there is a sense, following Proust, that les vrais paradis sont les paradis qu’on a perdus” (true paradise is the paradise one has lost). What do you think Iyer means? Do you agree with Marcel Proust?

3. What does Chapter 15, “A Few Unpalatable Anthropological Truths,” reveal about sexuality in modern Turkey? How are those “truths” reflected elsewhere in the novel? How might your own cultural assumptions about gender and sexuality influence your views on the behavior of Sibel, Füsun or Kemal?

4. At one point, Kemal reflects on his relationship to Füsun: “Did the pleasure of satisfying evergreen desire give birth to love, or was this sentiment born of, and nurtured by, other things as well?” (p. 54). How might you answer that?

5. Consider the following statements by Kemal: “In fact no one recognizes the happiest moment of their lives as they are living it” (p. 72) and “Now, all these years later, I think that the best way to preserve happiness may be not to recognize it for what it is” (p. 98). Are these two statements contradictory? Do you agree with either?

6. On page 157, Kemal tells of “the astonishing powers of consolation that objects held,” and, on page 73, says that “mementos preserve the colors, textures, images, and delights as they were more faithfully, in fact, than can those who accompanied us through those moments.” How are these notions expressed throughout the novel? Do you share Kemal’s beliefs regarding objects and mementos?

7. What do you think Kemal means when he states, on page 102, that “the gap between compassion and surrender is love’s darkest, deepest region”? What is that “gap”? How are the concepts of the “gap” and “the cleft between the felt and the imagined” (p. 347) represented in the novel?

8. On page 113, Berrin tells Kemal that a “girl with brains doesn’t judge a man by the way he thinks. She looks at his family, at the way he deports himself.” What does this comment reveal about Berrin and his class? Where else is this idea reflected in the novel?

9. How are political events within Turkey from the 1970s and 1980s integrated into the novel? Do the characters address the political turmoil surrounding them? In his portrayal of the characters’ relation to current events, what might Pamuk be saying about them and their society?

10. On page 176, Pamuk writes, “Sibel, with the felicitous intuition so prevalent in the bourgeoisies of non-Western countries, and most particularly Muslim countries, saw psychoanalysis as a ‘scientific sharing of confidences’ invented for Westerners unaccustomed to the curative traditions of family solidarity and shared secrets.” What do you think of that quote? How might it explain Sibel or other characters’ behavior?

11. Is the change of Füsun’s hair color from blond to black significant? How might these two representations of Füsun symbolize the tendencies and paradoxes of modern Turkey?

12. On page 219, Sibel says: “The art of love is in finding a balance of equals . . . If you ask me, being cultured and civilized is not about everyone being free and equal; it’s about everyone being refined enough to act as if they were. Then no one has to feel guilty.” What do you think she means? Do you agree? How might Sibel’s definition of “equal” compare with your own?

13. On page 302, Kemal realizes “that the longing for art, like the longing for love, is a malady that blinds us, and makes us forget the things we already know, obscuring reality.” How is Pamuk’s writing of The Museum of Innocence both a reflection and realization of that belief?  Consider Chapter 52, “A Film About Life and Agony Should Be Sincere,” and Füsun’s later interest in painting birds. How might Pamuk’s depiction of film and the visual arts function as metaphors for the characters’ shifting circumstances and inner lives?

14. Review Chapter 54, “Time,” and Chapter 62, “To Help Pass the Time,” in the context of the rest of the story. How would you describe the novel’s notion of time? Is it realistic? Metaphoric? Philosophic? Did the book make you think differently about time?

15. In 2005, Pamuk spoke to the Swiss press about the Turkish killings of Kurds and Armenians, for which he was subsequently charged by Turkey with “insulting national character.” Although the charges were later dropped, how might Chapter 59, “Getting Past the Censors,” be both a satire and a commentary on Pamuk’s experience with Turkish authorities?

16. Consider the following statement by Kemal: “In those days I’d ceased to think of my life as something I lived in wakeful consciousness of what I was doing: I’d begun instead to think of it as something imagined, something—just like love—that issued from my dreams, and as I had no wish either to fight my growing pessimism about the world or to surrender myself to it unconditionally, I acted as if no such thoughts had entered my mind” (p. 420). What does Kemal’s admission reveal about him? About his relationship to Füsun? How are Kemal’s concepts of the “real” and the “imaginary” reflected thematically and stylistically throughout the novel?

17. In Chapter 82, “Collectors,” Pamuk playfully explores the social and psychological contexts of collecting. Why might there be a sense of shame attached to collecting? How do you distinguish between a collector and a hoarder? Do you collect anything? If so, what do you think drives your passion?

18. In the novel’s final chapter, “Happiness,” Kemal says: “With my museum I want to teach not just the Turkish people but all the people of the world to take pride in the lives they live. I’ve traveled all over, and I’ve seen it with my own eyes: While the West takes pride in itself, most of the rest of the world lives in shame. But if the objects that bring us shame are displayed in a museum, they are immediately transformed into possessions in which to take pride” (p. 518). How do you interpret this passage? Does The Museum of Innocence accomplish Kemal’s goal? What do shame and pride have to do with a museum?

19. How do you understand Kemal’s claim that “As visitors admire the objects and honor the memory of Füsun and Kemal, with due reverence, they will understand that . . . this is not simply a story of lovers, but of the entire realm, that is, of Istanbul” (p. 524)?  How might this assertion be true?

20. To what do you think the “innocence” of the title refers? Considering page 124 and the final chapter, “Happiness,” how do Orhan and Kemal’s perceptions of Füsun compare? Does your perception of Füsun differ from theirs? What do you think of Kemal’s final words of the novel?



Orhan Pamuk Reader’s Companion
 
Orhan Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, the first Turkish author to receive the award. He is the overall bestselling author in his homeland and his books have been published in more than fifty languages. This guide is designed to help you explore Pamuk’s world and writings, whether your group chooses to read all of his works or to focus on his acclaimed novels or engaging nonfiction titles.
 
Born in Istanbul in 1952, Pamuk grew up in a well-to-do, Western-oriented family. As a child he attended private schools and dreamed of becoming an artist. He began his studies at Istanbul Technical University in architecture, but at the age of twenty-two switched to journalism, taking the first step in his career as a writer. Pamuk’s first novel, Cevdet Bey and His Sons, the story of three generations of a Turkish family, was published in Turkey in 1982. The White Castle, the first of his novels to be translated into English, takes place in seventeenth-century Constantinople (as Istanbul was then called) and explores the meeting between East and West, a theme that recurs throughout Pamuk’s writing career. The White Castle also introduced a deeper, more personal interest, one that imbues in his works of fiction and nonfiction alike: the relationship between dreams and reality, memory and imagination.
 
In his early years as a writer, Pamuk spent five years in residence at Columbia University, where he now holds a position as a visiting professor. In the autobiographical profile he wrote for the Nobel Prize committee, Pamuk reflected on his time as a visiting scholar at Columbia and the influence that had on his evolution as a writer: “I was thirty-three years old . . . and asking myself hard questions about who I was, and about my history. . . . During my time in New York, my longing for Istanbul mixed with my fascination for the wonders of Ottoman, Persian, Arab, and Islamic culture” (copyright © The Nobel Foundation, 2006). For much of those five years, Pamuk devoted himself to writing The Black Book, a strikingly original novel that weaves multiple voices and beguiling stories about Istanbul, past and present, into a modern-day detective story.

In his next novel, The New Life, Pamuk once again transformed the conventions of mystery into an intellectual adventure, creating a world in which a mysterious book, a fleeting romance, and conspiracies real and imagined wreak havoc on a university student’s life and his sense of identity. Set in the sixteenth century, My Name Is Red revisits Turkey’s rich and complex Ottoman past in a fascinating tale about the impact of Western art and aesthetics on an Islamic society that stifled individual creativity and strictly prohibited the creation of representational paintings.
 
As Pamuk’s fame grew throughout the 1990s, journalists in Turkey and abroad looked to him for elucidation on the political situation in his homeland and its relations with the West. Troubled by the changes occurring in Turkey, Pamuk wrote Snow, his first overtly political novel. A thought-provoking, witty, and balanced portrait of the rise of political Islamism, Snow was widely read and discussed in Turkey and became an international bestseller. The Museum of Innocence, Pamuk’s newest work of fiction, examines the nature of romantic attachment and the mysterious allure of collecting as it traces a wealthy man’s lifetime obsession with the lower-class woman he had loved and abandoned as a young man.
 
Collected essays, articles, and autobiographical sketches
 
Now in his late fifties, Orhan Pamuk lives in Istanbul in the same apartment building he grew up in. His deep attachment to the city is beautifully captured in Istanbul: Memories and the City, a combination of childhood memoir and journey into Istanbul life through his own eyes and those of painters and writers (including European visitors like the German artist Antoine-Ignace Melling and the French writers Gérard de Nerval and Gustave Flaubert); enhanced with photographs, it illuminates the personal and artistic influences on his work. Other Colors showcases the range and depth of Pamuk’s interests. There are short, lyrical pieces about his personal life collected under the apt and intriguing title “Living and Worrying”; critical essays on literary figures such as Dostoevsky, Camus, Nabokov, Vargas Llosa, and Rushdie, along with assessments of several of his own novels; and commentaries on a wide variety of political and cultural matters. A captivating collection, Other Colors provides fresh insights into the mind and imagination of one of today’s most notable writers.
 
A political drama and the recognition of Pamuk’s contributions to literature
 
In an interview with a Swiss newspaper in February 2005, Pamuk denounced the Ottoman massacre of millions Armenians in 1915 and the slaughter of thirty thousand Kurds in Turkey during the 1990s. His comments caused a furor in Turkey: several newspapers launched campaigns against him and he was officially charged with the crime of “publicly denigrating Turkish identity.” Facing death threats, Pamuk moved abroad. He returned to face a trial and the possibility of three years of imprisonment; the charges were dropped on a technicality in January 2006. The incident reverberated internationally, highlighting the conflict between anti-European nationalism in Turkey and the government’s campaign to join the European Union. It exposed, as well, the simmering distrust of—and sometimes blatant hostility toward—Muslim populations in the United States and Europe.
 
In awarding Orhan Pamuk the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, the Swedish Academy said, “In the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city, [Pamuk] has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.” Pamuk’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “My Father’s Suitcase” (Other Colors, pages 403–17), offers a more personal explanation of why he became a writer and what he hopes to accomplish:

It was only by writing books that I came to a fuller understanding of the problems of authenticity (as in My Name Is Red and The Black Book) and the problems of life on the periphery (as in Snow and Istanbul). For me, to be a writer is to acknowledge the secret wounds that we carry inside us. . . . My confidence comes from the belief that all human beings resemble one other, that others carry wounds like mine—that they will therefore understand. All true literature rises from this childish, hopeful certainty that all people resemble one another.

For discussion
 
1.     Have Pamuk’s books changed your perceptions of Turkey? What insights do they offer into the country’s history and place in the world?

2.     Have his books given you a deeper understanding of the Muslim world? Have they altered your opinion about the current situation in the Middle East and other parts of the world where Islam is the dominant religion? Have you become more or less sympathetic?

3.     Pamuk’s novels range over a wide span of time, from the sixteenth century (My Name Is Red) to the present day (Snow). Compare your reactions to the historical novels and the contemporary works. Which do you prefer and why?

4.     In these books what impact do the tensions between Eastern and Western beliefs and customs have on individual lives, on the relations between classes and ethnic groups, or on political debates? What competing ideologies (or ways of thinking) affect the characters’ behavior and emotional responses? Consider the ethical, religious, and social dilemmas individuals face and how they resolve them.

5.     Snow is prefaced by epigraphs from Robert Browning, Stendahl, Dostoevsky, and Joseph Conrad. How does each of them apply not only to Snow, but also to the other Pamuk books you have read? Citing specific passages, how would you characterize the author’s feelings about Western attitudes toward the Muslim world?

6.     What role do perceptions—or misperceptions—about Islamic law and religious customs play in the assumptions Westerners make about Muslims? Are there current controversies in the United States or Europe that support your view?

7.     Do Pamuk’s depictions of the relationships between men and women conform to your impressions of romance, marriage, and family life in a Muslim society? How are women presented in the historical novels? In what ways do the women in the novels set in the present (or in the recent past) embody both traditional female roles and the new opportunities they have to express their opinions and act on their beliefs?

8.     Istanbul opens with an essay about Pamuk’s feelings as a child that “somewhere in the streets of Istanbul . . . there lived another Orhan so much like me that he could pass for my own twin, even my double” (page 3). Many reviewers, including John Updike, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, and Charles McGrath, have written about what McGrath calls “an enduring Pamuk preoccupation: the idea of doubleness or split identity” (New York Times, October 13, 2006). Can you find examples of doubleness in the books you have read, and if so, what do these add to the story? What insights do they reveal about Pamuk’s own sense of identity?

9.     What techniques does Pamuk use to bring his characters, real and fictional, to life? How do his descriptions of settings, manners, and other everyday details enhance the portraits he creates? What use does he make of humor, exaggeration, and other stylistic flourishes in his depictions of particular situations, conversations, musings, and arguments?

10.     Pamuk employs many of the literary devices associated with postmodern and experimental fiction. (McGrath, for example, notes his use of “narratives within narratives, texts that come alive, labyrinths of signs and symbols . . .”). In what ways do his books echo Italo Calvino’s allegorical fantasies? What do they share with the writings of Jorge Luis Borges and other magical realists? What aspects of his literary style can be traced to earlier masters of innovative fiction like Kafka and Nabokov?

11.     In an essay on the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa in Other Colors, Pamuk writes, “It is clear . . . that there is a sort of narrative novel that is particular to the countries of the Third World. Its originality has less to do with the writer’s location than with the fact that he knows he is writing far from the world’s literary centers and he feels this distance inside himself” (page 168). Discuss how this manifests itself in Pamuk’s own works, as well as the works of Vargas Llosa and other authors writing from the Third World. Are there creative advantages to living and writing “far from the world’s literary centers”?

12.     Pamuk writes in Istanbul of authors who left their homelands—Conrad, Nabokov, Naipaul: “Their imaginations were fed by exile, a nourishment drawn not through roots, but through rootlessness” (page 6). If you have read the works of these writers, or other authors in exile, do you agree that their books reflect—in style or in content—the effects of living in a new, foreign culture? To what extent is Pamuk’s writing rooted in the storytelling traditions of Eastern cultures? In what ways does it show the influence of his early exposure to Western literature, his participation in international literary circles, and his longtime association with American academia?

13.     Despite the many differences between the societies Pamuk describes and our own, why do his characters and their behavior resonant with contemporary English-speaking readers? Are there aspects of Turkish mores that make it difficult to sympathize or engage with the characters in the novels? Do these factors also influence your reactions to his autobiographical pieces, literary criticism, and cultural observations in both Other Colors and Istanbul?

14.     How does Pamuk’s personal history, as well as the plots of some novels, mirror the complicated history of Turkey? Consider such topics as: the decline and dissolution of the once powerful Ottoman Empire; the sweeping changes initiated by Atatürk in the 1920s; the conflicting desires to preserve Turkey’s distinctive heritage and to become more active in the global community; and the rise of fundamentalist Islam throughout Middle East today.

15.     In discussing the importance of novels, Pamuk says, “Modern societies, tribes, and nations do their deepest thinking about themselves by reading novels; through reading novels, they are able to argue about who they are” (Other Colors, page 233). Do you agree? What can novels provide that nonfiction books and other media do not?
 
Suggestions for further reading
Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy; Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions; Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities; Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss; Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground; Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum; Franz Kafka, The Castle; James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Milan Kundera, Immortality; Naguib Mahfouz, The Cairo Trilogy; Gabriel García Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera; Vladimir Nabokov, Ada; V. S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River; Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past
 
Pamuk’s works are available in Vintage paperback editions (listed here in order of their first translation into English): The White Castle; The New Life; My Name Is Red; The Black Book; Snow; Istanbul; Other Colors; The Museum of Innocence


(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)

About this Author

Orhan Pamuk is the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature for 2006. His novel My Name is Red won the 2003 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages. He lives in Istanbuland New York.

Suggested Reading

The Hakawati, Rabih Alameddine; A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry; Possession, A. S. Byatt; A Bend in the River, V. S. Naipaul; Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese; Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Censoring an Iranian Love Story, Shariar Mandanipour; Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez; The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai
 
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