Memory lane

In a dark-red Ottoman town house in Istanbul’s antiques district, a fast-gentrifying quarter where brassware spills on to steep, cobbled lanes, an idiosyncratic museum has been taking shape. The first display as you enter is an entire wall spiked with evenly spaced cigarette butts – testament to the prolonged agony of a man who furtively saved 4,213 of his beloved’s fag ends after she married someone else. Yet “the word ‘obsession’ is discouraged”, says the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, as he supervises the final touches to his Museum of Innocence.

Orhan Pamuk in front of his museum in Istanbul

Pamuk, an artist manqué, studied architecture but switched to novel writing aged 23. His “sentimental museum” was conceived in the mid-1990s as a counterpart to his eighth novel, The Museum of Innocence (2008) – published after he won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2006. Like the author, its hero Kemal is born into Istanbul’s well-heeled bourgeoisie. But after an affair with Fusun, a beautiful shopgirl and a distant poor relation, Kemal breaks off a society engagement to try to win her back. The story has the contours of Turkish television melodrama (Pamuk had a stint writing scripts in the 1980s). But the pain is real in a novel that, like much of Pamuk’s fiction, probes the anxieties and inauthenticity of living in what feels like a backwater while imitating a westernised modernity. Kemal’s beloved dies, and – unable to find peace – he builds a museum from the objects she touched, as Pamuk gathered memorabilia to inspire the narrative.

In the lengthy run-up to the museum’s opening, Pamuk is in high spirits, waltzing around stepladders and wires to the droning of drills and saws (“I won’t tell them to go away – I want this to be authentic,” he yells with a grin). At 59, elation and enthusiasm add to his boyishness. In 1998 he bought a dilapidated corner house in Cukurcuma, in the backstreets of Beyoglu, across the Golden Horn from Sultanahmet’s palaces, but was frustrated by the slow renovation.

“It’s like building a house: bureaucracy – the plumber never comes on time. Honestly, lots of unhappiness and regrets went into it.” He says he returned a small grant from the city of Istanbul owing to a “nasty political fight”, and funded the project “95 per cent” from his royalties, working with Turkish and German architects, including Ihsan Bilgin and Gregor Sunder-Plassmann. He also had to factor in bodyguards, because of longstanding death threats from far-right factions.

The small museum mainly comprises a sequence of little cabinets, each corresponding to one of the novel’s 83 chapters: 10 are missing and will be added later. “Our constitution is the book,” Pamuk declares. “It was a joy to develop the novel with a texture alive at that time.” While Kemal’s love affair takes place in the 1970s and 1980s – overlapping with Turkey’s military coup of 1980 – the exhibits span a half century from the 1950s.

Built in 1894, the house is purportedly Fusun’s family home. A vitrine of salt shakers by the stairwell commemorates Kemal’s dinners there. Prominent is a dress she purportedly wore when Kemal seduced her. “That’s the closest we get to her,” Pamuk murmurs, as though of an acquaintance. There are sprawling collections of earrings, hairclips and matchboxes, purloined in Kemal’s “ritual of consolation”, and odd objects from a broken porcelain heart to a toy tricycle. Many were already in Pamuk’s collection, though he bought hundreds of anonymous photographs and postcards. His novels, he believes, have an “eclectic quality – thousands of little things. We’re also doing that; museums are all about detail.”

Three years ago I saw some of these objects spread over his nearby office floor. Yet each cabinet here is composed like an art installation, surrealist, minimalist or baroque. Pamuk, who designs his own book covers, sketched many of the displays. “It’s increasingly a museum of atmosphere,” he says. The desired effect is an “aura or sentiment of the book”. Happily, that includes its humour. An anatomical poster provides an “analogy of how love pain starts”. A surreal pipe and bow tie evoke the psychiatrist whom Kemal’s fiancée insists he sees. The peeling green shutters and hurricane lamp, salvaged from a derelict Bosphorus mansion, recall Kemal’s impotent nights as he tries to appease his intended. In “Streets that Remind Me of Her”, a 1934 map of Nisantasi – Pamuk’s upscale family neighbourhood – is marked yellow, orange or red, depending on the degree of anguish its associations stir in Kemal.

The museum, like the novel, is as much a celebration of Pamuk’s home city as a lament for lost love. “It’s partly the memory of the culture – how you go to a picnic like this,” Pamuk gestures at a laden fruit basket. This makes for a postmodern cabinet of curiosities that can be relished without knowledge of the novel. Using cutting-edge museum technology, it blurs documentary and fiction, to an effect both playful and profound. Videos of the Bosphorus play on screens, while boxing gloves above a typewriter allude to Pamuk’s erstwhile typist, who moonlighted as a boxer. Little is as it seems. After experiments with tobacco smoked by a vacuum machine, the cigarette butts being installed by a woman on a stepladder are by a plastic artist. Even the 1970s-style TV ad for Meltem soda pop is a mock campaign by one of Turkey’s top admen, in homage to a fictitious soft drink.

“It is a nostalgic museum,” Pamuk concedes, “but not only that. The point is we’re preserving things that were never represented, underlining commonplace, daily-life qualities. We strongly believe in honouring these ephemera.” Kemal’s chewing-gum footballer cards proved expensive because “Turkey’s collectors are also after these”. There are model trains and ferry tokens. “People in Istanbul, like Venice, are nostalgic about boats. You’ll also hear sounds from holes in the boxes” – he obligingly impersonates a foghorn. The wall clock manoeuvred above the stairs (“This is an important moment,” Pamuk announces) is being balanced by one of Istanbul’s chief clockmakers, who has pledged to ensure that it keeps time.

Kemal visits 1,743 museums in 15 years, and Pamuk saw “close to Kemal’s number” during book tours in the 1990s, including the Gustave-Moreau in Paris, and Thomas Mann House in Lübeck. As he writes in a “Modest Manifesto”, there were few museums in Istanbul when he was a child, but those he visited later convinced him that they, like novels, could speak for individuals not officialdom.

Museums, he says now, “should be more like novels – less about nations, tribes, institutions; more about personal stories”. They have “always represented power – a prince or state, official groups. Well, we have a power too: this guy madly in love, crying, collecting cigarettes. We claim that his experience is universal; everyone, we hope, falls in love and passes through Kemal’s moods.” Just as Kemal realises that “I too could have something worthy of proud display, and the notion set me free,” Pamuk says: ‘We’re saying, ‘Do your museum, and you will have power.’ At least you won’t be ashamed of your collection, or your history.”

The novel contains a locator map, and a free single-entry ticket. It will be stamped by guards in velvet suits the “colour of dark wood”, as Kemal stipulates. Pamuk has a set of suits, “because sometimes I will discreetly wear them and guard the objects.” So visitors should not be surprised to find the Nobel laureate lurking among the cabinets. “I’m going to work on this for 20 years, till I die. It will be fun.”

The Museum of Innocence, Istanbul, opens April 27;

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