‘Help!’ That’s what I thought when I saw a whole wall of cigarette butts, every single one of them pricked up on a pin, with a hand-written line by Orhan Pamuk underneath it. ‘keserken mutfakta, çook mutluyduk, çok…’ (while cutting in the kitchen we were very happy, very…) for example. Or: ‘saate bakiyor musunuz?’ (are you looking at the clock?) I have a compulsive side to me, and worried that I’d have to read all of the comments ánd make sense of them.
Such obsessive collecting in an attempt to give meaning is what the Museum of Innocence is all about. To stay with the cigarettes: red lipstick on the filter ends suggests that all of the 4,213 cigarettes on the wall were smoked by Füsun, the heroin of Pamuks 600-page novel to which the museum is dedicated. And presumably all of them were lovingly collected by Kemal, son of a wealthy, bourgeois family in 1970s Istanbul, who is infatuated with her, a simple shopgirl.
But the museum is not just an illustration of the book, Pamuk stressed at the opening of the museum. The wall and the little videos next to it of female hands holding a cigarette, gesticulating above a cup of tea, are an installation around the meaning of smoking. ‘In a society where direct communication is difficult, a lot is being said through gestures. What do you smoke, and how? You communicate by raising your eyebrows, by sighing, by how long you make your beloved wait.’
Climbing the staircase next to the wall of cigarettes, the visitor is confronted with cabinets full of beautifully displayed curiosities. All of them were collected by Kemal (or was it Orhan?) in worship of Füsun. Every cabinet corresponds to a chapter of the book. One immediately gets drawn in and starts looking for meaning. The yellow shoe of Füsun, a doll, her dress, many different bottles of cologne, all the pictures… This is a monument to Füsun, and through her, to love. Or? ‘Our daily lives are honorable,’ says Pamuk. ‘Their objects are worthy of being preserved. Later these will seem interesting. That is the role of literature: to make normal things seem strange.’ Pamuk stresses one doesn’t need to have read the book to enjoy the place. He wants us to let our minds wander and discover the museum’s own narrative.
From the beginning, the book and the museum were linked in his mind. Already in 1999 he bought the building. As he wrote he collected, or rather vice versa: as he collected little objects from junk shops in its neighborhood, from family and friends, he put them in his novel. ‘It wasn’t difficult to find lotto tickets, or bottle caps, or match boxes, because people collect these,’ Pamuk told us. ‘But who collected the toothbrushes the people of Istanbul used in those days? I complained about this in an interview and then a dear reader sent his collection to me.’
Pamuk is the man of the back streets, where, he believes, one can feel the melancholic pulse of a city. Not surprisingly, he bought the building that houses his museum in a small street of the then still poor district of Çukurcuma. Through gentrification the neighborhood has drastically changed. Inside, Pamuk wanted to cling to the atmosphere of bygone days. Yet, it is fiction.
Meticulously Pamuk has fretted over every single detail of every single display cabinet. ‘There is a painter in me,’ he says, ‘and every box is a painting with Kemal’s objects. […] Paintings and art make me happy, but when I write I feel more intelligent. I don’t know why I do it, just, that there’s a jinn inside me who forces me.’
I often wonder why I write, but I do know why I like the Museum of Innocence. To me, more than anything else, it offers a glimpse into a great mind. Strangely enough, rather than being overwhelmed by all its detail, it helped me see a bigger picture.