Proust’s Arabesk: The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

January 29, 2010 | 5 books mentioned 15 5 min read

There is a kind of Turkish music called Arabesk.  I’m not an expert, but by rough definition it is very sad and melodramatic, the kind of music to which old men sit and drink a booze called rakı (lion’s milk, to the Arabesk crowd) and wave their hands and sing along and get teary-eyed and feel sad.  Arabesk songs have titles like “God Hates a Lie,” “Woman in Pain,” “Am I not a Human Being?,” and “I Have the Suffering, You Have the Cure” (Dert Bende, my personal favorite, by Ajda Pekkan). Sometimes Turkish people laugh at me when I say I like this kind of music, but I think it’s the most beautiful music alive.  I can’t understand all of it (maybe that’s why I like it so much), but in the right mood, it makes my heart crack in a thousand pieces.  (I’m not kidding about the booze, by the way.  On YouTube, under songs by the famous Arabesk singer Bergen, there are comments like “I’m listening and drinking rakı,” to which someone will respond “Drink, brother, drink.  I’m having a beer.”)

coverArabesk is music for indoors smoking and lost love and breaking up or knocking up or beating up.  Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence is like an Arabesk song, as written by Marcel Proust.  It opens like this:

It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn’t know it.  Had I known, had I cherished this gift, would everything have turned out differently?  Yes, if I had recognized this instant of perfect happiness, I would have held it fast and never let it slip away…

Someone get me a drink.

In the streets in Beyoğlu, close to where the novel takes place, there are lots of shops selling postcards and posters and old magazines and all manner of stuff.  Once I bought an Efes beer advertisement from the seventies showing a lively technicolored family around the kitchen table–Mom and Dad enjoying a glass of the national brew.  These were the triumphant modern citizens of Atatürk’s Turkey!  Look how bright and forward-thinking!  Examine Ma’s stylish permanent wave.  Of course, what you can’t see in the ad is the perpetual struggle between the ultra-nationalists, the leftists, the Islamists, the fascists, and other Ists, a struggle punctuated by the military, which every ten years or so marched in and told everyone to fuck right off.  Nor do you see the eternal struggle between secularity and religion, the eternal embarrassment of the rich and urbane for the poor and benighted, or the eternal wrangling over virginity.

Orhan Pamuk, of course, can see all this, although his central character is a citizen of that swinging, modern Turkey, for whom the nation’s sociopolitical struggles are not a primary concern.  Kemal, the novel’s protagonist, is one of the sophisticated rich who gets imported liquor for parties at the Hilton (rather than the provincial rich, who gape at uncovered women and get fruit sodas).  By chance or destiny or whatever, Kemal, engaged to a fellow bright young thing, starts an affair with an unpedigreed relative, Füsun.  There has been big talk on the dearth of sex in the writing of contemporary men–this book has sex, by God.  Right from the get-go, there are big pear breasts and honey skin and nipples like strawberries and trysts in an airless apartment.  The affair (and Kemal’s engagement) end rather quickly, but the ensuing anguish and thwarted desire and inscrutable looks stretch on almost a decade.

In an effort to win back the unsophisticated relative, Kemal spurns the trendy restaurants and cafes of his peers, going instead to her family’s shabby home to sit, night after night after night.  The beloved Füsun, an aspiring actress whose emotional depths are for the most part unplumbable, appears to be happy with her chubby husband, a screenwriter and director.  Cousin Kemal, they are all agreed, will finance the film that will propel her to success, and in the meantime they drink in seedy film hangouts (probably with Ajda Pekkan) and smoke an obscene number of cigarettes.  All the while, everyone behaves as though brooding Kemal isn’t dying of love, and brooding Kemal, displaying markedly kleptomaniac traits, pockets everything his beloved touches.  One day, these objects will populate his museum.  At about year six of the family sitting, you’re not sure whether Kemal is a crazy as a loon, if this woman wants anything to do with him, if she’s a moron, if she’s a victim, if he’s one of the world’s great lovers, or if he’s just an asshole.  I can’t say more, for fear of spoilers.

Meanwhile, Istanbul is happening all around, the sounds and the smells and the politics and the writhing humanity.  It’s no secret that Orhan Pamuk knows and loves his city, and it is a character here as in his other books.  Beyond Kemal and his Arabesk yearning, the story is about Turkey, about the collective life of the Turks, sitting in their living rooms, smoking their cigarettes, watching the state channel, and soothing themselves with food and drink and china dogs.  In the streets, the politically-minded thrash around and exchange bullets toward an obscure purpose.

Essays about Turkish literature and criticism often seem obsessed with the idea of “belatedness.”  Even those scholars who wish to protest this characterization seem to reify it through constant iteration–that Turkey is always behind.  Pamuk’s novel engages this idea in a comic way, describing the wounds sustained by Kemal and his hip cohort as they attempt to use another mysterious gadget imported from the West (can openers and the like).  Of an evening in Paris, Kemal writes:

I caught myself asking the questions that occur to every Turk who goes abroad (if he has some education and a bit of money): What did these Europeans think about me? What did they think about us all?

(I’ve always felt that the United States and Turkey have a number of things in common, especially in this regard, but that’s another essay).

Even as Pamuk writes of a country running to catch up, he writes of a country that is so unlike anywhere else, and so much itself and as a consequence so desirable, that the rest of the us find ourselves scratching at its door like puppies hoping to be let in.  For all that Pamuk the citizen has been embroiled in legal struggles with the Turkish state, he strikes me in one sense as an elemental patriot.  To chronicle something obsessively is a form of love, and Pamuk documents the details of his Istanbul obsessively, just as his character Kemal creates his museum of innocence out of the universe of meaningless bric-a-brac surrounding his beloved.

coverThe last Orhan Pamuk novel I read was The Black Book, which was so esoteric that I found it a struggle.  This book seems more straightforward, but that’s in style only.  Its themes run deep and dark, even if they mirror the preoccupations of a seventies crooner.  The style’s simplicity is, of course, deceptive; it’s not easy to write hundreds of pages of sitting, smoking, drinking, brooding.  Nor has Pamuk abandoned his solemn post-modern playfulness.  Deliberately, I believe (particularly since he mentions them), he invokes Nabokov (especially Ada and The Gift) and Proust.  Furthermore, the extraordinary man is actually creating a real Museum of Innocence, in which he will display the various knick-knacks and impedimenta of daily life.  That’s so many posts past modern, I don’t know what it is.

One day I hope to be able to read this in Turkish.  I’m on page 8 of Kar (Snow), which I bought in 2006, so I have a lot of work to do.  But The Museum of Innocence is not a novel that seems to suffer in translation, which is beautifully executed by Maureen Freely.  I was spellbound for four days.

It’s really a remarkable book.  Read it, and bring your rakı and your nicorette.  Bring your sad songs and your broken heart.  If you have the suffering, I have the cure.

is a contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State. You can read more of her writing at


  1. I’ve been very disappointed in The Museum of Innocence. I liked Snow & loved The Black Book so much that I started reading it again right after I finished. I never done that before with any book. Maybe I was hoping for the same esoteric nature in Pamuk’s latest.

  2. Thank you for the fantastic review – you’ve managed to breathe an extraordinary new life into this novel for me. I’d thought it sounded a bit stuffy, but now I’m ready to run out and devour it. Cheers!

  3. My name comes up on the library wait-list for “Museum” very soon and I’m hoping I won’t be disappointed. Istanbul is touted as a very hot spot for travel, with an infinite variety of sites to see and things to do. But I fell in love, as an arm-chair traveler, after reading Pamuk’s “Istanbul.” “Snow” was a very interesting book from an historical viewpoint. His books can be a bit heavy-going (for me), but I’m always determined to finish what I start–with few exceptions.

  4. Hi. Thank you for this great review. It’s far better than any other intellectually stressed article I’ve read here in Turkey, when the book first came out. I can see that you obviously caught the point of this book, its essence perhaps, apart from the literary notions it possesses. I am Turkish myself, and I can tell that this book is heartbreakingly Turkish in terms of reflecting the state of mind of people in Turkey in the 70s, not only from a very sensual perspective, but also caring for the issues of class distinction and gender inequality between people. What I like the most about this book is that the story and the narration here resemble to the Turkish melodramas of 70s as well as owe a certain quality to the 70s’ existential and realist Turkish literature. I think it’s a dreamy combination, and I can’t fail to notice the influences of Nabokov and Proust, as always. Anyway, a few generations in Turkey grew up watching those movies (famously known as Yeşilçam movies) at theatres crying and all, but then, after the military coup of 1980, and during the following socioeconomic transformation in the 80s and 90s, along with the spreading globalism, a new generation came up (which I also belong to) mocking and looking down on those movies (to be honest, most of them were awful), and ignored the fact that the collective subconscious of post-Ottoman Turkish people was rooted there in those films. I think this book is kind of about the innocence that we lost in the interim, as a society. I believe most people in Turkey are “arabesk” at heart, no matter how modern they think they are. And nobody could write that better than Pamuk. Thanks again.

  5. Jeff, yes, I think if you are a Black Book Lover, the style of this novel might be a disappointment…and I hope you others like it!

    Görkem, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I lived in Turkey for a little while, and they say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and as such when I was writing this I worried about essentializing Turks and ‘Turkishness.’ But a thing that struck me about this book were the echoes I heard in it of some of my Turkish friends, who managed to imbue their own anecdotes with a kind of stylized high drama that seemed a little bit in the tradition of these now very retro movies, even while the movies are, like you say, spurned by most young people now. From my non-Turk perspective, Pamuk seems so pitch-perfect in this book…it’s good to hear that I’m not (in your opinion, at any rate) off target about this.


  6. without a doubt, the most sincere, entertaining and thoughtful review that i’ve ever read about the book and arabesk culture…thanks for this lovely piece, lydia.

  7. Istanbul is such an amazing and fascinating city. One of my favorite places I’ve been to. I got this book for Christmas and will be reading it very soon and this is an excellent review.

  8. Lydia, congrats to you for this post making the long list at the 3 Quarks Daily competition. Great to find out about you as a writer. All my best.

  9. Good luck with reading Kar in Turkish. It was my first Pamuk (or any book) in Turkish for that matter. Basladigimda her sayfa 20 sozu sozlukta ariyordum, sonunda, bu sayi 2-3 soze kadar dustu. En iyi olan tabiiki Kara Kitab, ama Ingilizcede okudugunda kucuk ayrintilari geciliyor.

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