A city, Orhan Pamuk once told me, would be a museum for our memories if we live in it long enough.
– Narration, ‘The Innocence of Memories’
Director Grant Gee’s last film was Patience (After Sebald), a film in which passages read from Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn complemented images of the Suffolk landscape with absolute perfection. Now he has done something similar with Orhan Pamuk’s novel The Museum of Innocence, taking the viewer on atmospheric journeys, drifting through the deserted streets and alleyways of Istanbul at night, accompanied by readings from the novel and extra material also written by Pamuk. It’s a stunning film, perhaps the best invocation of the spirit of a work of literature that I’ve seen. It also provides a guided tour of the Museum of Innocence itself, established by Pamuk in Istanbul to house real objects that trace the fictional love affair described in the novel.
The subject of Grant Gee’s film has been described by Simon Schama as ‘the single most powerfully beautiful, humane and affecting work of contemporary art anywhere in the world.’ He’s speaking not about the novel, but of the physical Museum of Innocence, established by Orhan Pamuk in the Çukurcuma neighbourhood of Istanbul. Which came first in Pamuk’s imagination is unclear, but it seems that museum and novel developed in parallel. In the early 1990s, Pamuk began collecting objects from the past that he saw and liked in Istanbul junk shops and friends’ homes. Sometimes these would reflect a scene already written; on other occasions he would stumble across an object that inspired a new scene in the novel. Gradually, the collected objects came to shape the narrative that would become The Museum of Innocence: A Novel.
Both the novel and the museum tell the story of Kemal, the son of a wealthy Istanbul family, and a poor shop girl called Füsun, who begin an illicit love affair. Kemal’s love for Füsun becomes obsessive: he abandons the woman to whom he is already engaged, and when Füsun disappears he returns every day to the room where they made love, and begins to fill it with an array of everyday items that remind him of her.
Pamuk sets his story in Istanbul during the 1970s and 80s, evoking the uneasy tension in social and cultural attitudes in a society caught between modern Western and traditional attitudes to love, marriage and sex, with notions of honour and shame still a exerting a powerful influence on personal behaviour. Questions about the role of women and the power of men are woven into the story of Kemal and Füsun.
Above all, it’s a story of an obsession that lasts for nearly a decade, told in elaborate detail. When I read the book – which is over 700 pages long – I had to make a considerable effort to continue during the the central stretch of two hundred pages or so. It’s during these years that Kemal, having discovered where Füsun (now married) is living, visits her in the house she and her husband share with her parents almost every night. During each visit, he steals some object that will remind him of Füsun.
For seven years and ten months exactly I made regular visits to Cukurcuma for supper to see Füsun. If we bear in mind that my first visit was on Saturday, October 23, 1976 – eleven days after Aunt Nesibe’s open-ended welcome (‘Come any evening!’) – and that my last night in Cukurcuma with Füsun and Aunt Nesibe [her mother] was on Sunday, August 26, 1984, we can see that there were 2,864 days intervening. According to my notes, during the 409 weeks that my story will now describe, I went there for supper 1,593 times.
Just like the house where Kemal spent 1,593 evenings, the Museum of Innocence is situated in Cukurcuma, an area of Istanbul famous for the old antique shops that line its narrow streets.
It was a mixed neighbourhood: Galata dockworkers, clerks and owners of small shops in the backstreets of Beyoglu, Romany families who had moved there from Tophane, Kurdish Alevi families from Tunceli, the impoverished children and grandchildren of the Italians and Levantines who had once worked as clerks in Beyoglu or Bank Street, a handful of the old Greek families who, like them, could still not find it in them to leave Istanbul, and various employees of bakeries and depots, taxi drivers, postmen, grocers, and penniless university students. This multitude did not coalesce into the sort of united communities one saw in the traditional Muslim neighbourhoods of Fatih, Vefa, and Kocamustafapasa. But from the help I was continually offered, from the interest the young men took in any unusual or expensive cars that cruised its streets, from the speed with which news and gossip spread through the neighbourhood, I inferred a sort of connectedness, a tentative solidarity, or at the very least the buzz of shared experience.
As we see in Grant Gee’s film, the museum consists of a series of displays, each corresponding to one of the 83 chapters in the novel, which itself describes how these objects were collected and arranged by Kemal to preserve his memories of Füsun. One of the displays is a large glass case containing 4,213 cigarette butts, each smoked by Füsun.
During my eight years of going to the Keskins’ for supper, I was able to squirrel away 4,213 of Füsun’s cigarette butts. Each one of these had touched her rosy lips and entered her mouth, some even touching her tongue and becoming moist, as I would discover when I put my finger on the filter soon after she had stubbed the cigarette out; the stubs, reddened by her lovely lipstick, bore the unique impress of her lips at some moment whose memory was laden with anguish or bliss, making these stubs artefacts of singular intimacy.
For the fictional Kemal, the realisation grows – particularly as he takes to visiting small and often eccentric museums in cities around the world – that Fusun’s possessions can displayed in the same way: that ‘there is a story to tell every time people and objects meet; there is always a story to tell’. In a clever twist at the end of the novel Kemal hands over the narration to Orhan Pamuk, a character who has appeared fleetingly in the novel’s pivotal and brilliantly-orchestrated chapter. And so the hired writer Pamuk begins to describe the collection which the fictional Kemal has accumulated, just as he, Pamuk, has begun to collect the very same objects. Although everything in the museum references the novel, the museum also documents the era of 1970s Istanbul in which the book is set. Indeed, in his guide to the collection – The Innocence of Objects: The Museum of Innocence, Istanbul – Pamuk maintains that the museum and novel can be experienced independently of each other.
The Museum of Innocence was published in Turkish in 2008, two years after Pamuk had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Pamuk immediately set about establishing the museum in Çukurcuma, financing it with his $1.2 million prize money. The museum opened in April 2012; two years later it received the 2014 European Museum of the Year Award.
The museum’s walls are lined with around 60 display cabinets, each one designed by Pamuk, containing objects that represent the memory traces of every significant moment of the tragic love affair and obsession of his novel. Here are Fuzun’s shoes and the handbag which Kemal bought in the shop where he first met her. Gee’s camera lingers over the pièce de résistance: the 4,213 cigarette ends smoked by Fuzun, many bearing her lipstick smudge, each inscribed below with the exact day, time and circumstance of their smoking.
It was about the Museum that Simon Schama wrote:
Pamuk created in this old house what may be the single most powerfully beautiful, humane and affecting work of contemporary art anywhere in the world, at once poetic and darkly comical; tender and, case by case, space by space, aesthetically ravishing.
As I scoured every neighbourhood, every street of the city, it never crossed my mind that I would recall the hours I spent hunting for her as happy ones. When Fusun’s ghost began to appear in the poor neighbourhoods of the old city – Vefa, Zeyrek, Fatih, Kocamustafapasa – I concentrated on that side of the Golden Horn. […]
Sometimes I felt that my happiness issued not from the possibility that Fusun was near, but from something less tangible. I felt as if I could see the very essence of life in these poor neighbourhoods with their empty lots, their muddy cobblestone streets, their cars, rubbish bins, and sidewalks, and the children playing with a half-inflated football under the streetlamps.
I have never been to Istanbul, but after watching Grant Gee’s film, I feel a strange familiarity with its night-time cobblestone streets and alleyways that haunt the dreamlike sequences in which Gee’s camera glides through the sleeping city, bathed in a strange, sulphurous light, the terrain of packs of stray dogs.
As I walked these streets, it was as if I was seeking out my own centre. As I meandered drunkenly up and down these narrow ways, the muddy hills and curving alleys that turned abruptly into steps, the world would suddenly seem uninhabited except by dogs, and a chill would pass through me, and I would gaze admiringly at the yellow lamplight filtering through drawn curtains, the thin funnels of blue smoke rising from chimneys, the reflected glow of televisions in windows and shop fronts.
The mood evoked by these atmospheric sequences is that of huzun, the state of collective melancholy which in his memoir Istanbul Orhan Pamuk says is the soul of his city. Recalling the Istanbul of his youth, Pamuk writes that huzun is:
Covered women who stand at remote bus stops clutching plastic shopping bags and speak to no one as they wait for the bus that never arrives … the patient pimps striding up and down the city’s greatest square on summer evenings in search of one last drunken tourist … the little children in the streets who try to sell the same packet of tissues to every passer by.
In Gee’s film, fact and fiction are hypnotically interwoven in a narrative that tells the story of the Museum of Innocence, the novel, and the city of Istanbul itself. In a brilliant move, actors do not impersonate the novel’s characters: instead Orhan Pamuk has written a new narration voiced by a minor character from the book – a childhood friend of Füsun – who returns to Istanbul decades after her affair with Kemal, and who visits the Museum.
Although I’ve suggested that I struggled with the central section of The Museum of Innocence – with its relentless account of Kemal’s obsessive love for Fusun, the eight years of regular evening visits to her family’s house, and his steady accumulation of objects that tell their story in every little detail – the novel has haunted my imagination ever since I read it. The images invoked in Grant Gee’s film complemented perfectly those already lodged in my mind from reading the book.
The Museum of Innocence isn’t the only book of Pamuk’s that has haunted my imagination. The first of his novels that I encountered was My Name is Red, set in the late 16th century, when miniaturist painters are required to produce work in the new perspective-framed ‘Frankish’ style. It, too, featured scenes in the darkened lanes and alleyways of midnight Istanbul. Then there was The Black Book with its similarities to The Museum of Innocence – and Snow, a thriller of great contemporary relevance in which a westernised journalist arrives in the remote town of Kars where Islamists are set to win provincial elections.
Why was it that in such moments of unhappiness, anger and misery, I could find pleasure in nocturnal walks through the desolate streets with only my dreams to keep me company? Why, instead of the sun-drenched postcard views of Istanbul that tourists so loved, did I prefer the semi-darkness of the back streets, the evenings and cold winter nights, the ghost people passing through the light of the pale streetlamps, the cobblestone views, their loneliness?
– from ‘Istanbul Memories of a City’