Sunday, December 4, 2016

CBR8 Reviews #7 and #8: Museum of Innocence and The White Castle by Orphan Pamuk

We've entered December, so we both know this means it's time to get all my reviews written before the end of CBR8! I've sat on the review of many -- some I've started and been unable to finish, some I just could never sit, gather my thoughts, and put it into words. You'd think that after participating in Cannonball Read since 2009 (Holy shit, I've been doing it for seven years!) I'd know how to *not* procrastinate on the reviews. Alas. So let's dive into it!

CBR8 Review #7: Museum of Innocence by Orphan Pamuk

In April, I spent a month in Istanbul, and that city was one of the most amazing places I've ever been. It was modern and historic, beautiful and creative, and that blend of Asian and European is something that can actually be seen. Put aside its physical beauty, and Istanbul is seriously one of the most interesting and fascinating places.

And during my last week there, I took myself to the Museum of Innocence, even though I've never read Orphan Pamuk's famed book of the same name. I thought I was going to be somewhat bored during my tour of the little corner house in the beautiful neighborhood of Cihangir, but I was just so entertained. All the glass displays in the museum portray a chapter in the book in terms of the items mentioned or the moment captured. So while I have never read the book, I could sort of figure out the narrative as I strolled through it. Pamuk's attempt -- with the museum -- was really to bottle what Istanbul was like during this period, through its knick-knacks and habits and events.

Little things from Turkish daily life.
 It was an experience unlike anything I've ever been to, and I left the museum feeling a sort of nostalgia for I don't even know what. It's like I didn't know I missed some *thing* until it plopped itself right in my life. So I knew that I had to read the book to get all my questions about the museum answered.

The plot itself is quite straightforward. It is a love story set in Istanbul in the 70s and 80s. Kemal, a wealthy businessman from a reputable family, falls in love with a distant relative of his, Fusun, who is from the poorer, oft-forgotten part of the family tree. Despite being engaged to a woman who is deemed suitable for his social and financial status -- and also being relatively content with his life -- Kemal embarks on a short-lived affair with Fusun.

The dress that Fusun wore on the day of her driving test.
I'm not sure how much I want to give away, because part of the intrigue of this book is on how you never quite know what the conclusion is. Does the ending come when the affair is halted? Does it end when Kemal admits his love for Fusun to himself? Does it end from Kemal removes himself from Istanbul's high-flying social scene?

All the red dots on this map of Istanbul indicate
where Kemal thought he saw Fusun.

The most frustrating aspect for me reading this was how much I disliked Kemal and yet understood where he was coming from. I suspect that might have been Pamuk's intention -- to portray a man of privilege, in every sense of the word, and to make him act like a total ass, and then regret his actions without knowing quite how to fix the situation. The second thing I suspect I'm supposed to take away from this is how women are viewed in Turkish society. The modern ones are open to having sex before marriage, but only with a man who they would eventually wed. And even as they proclaim their freedom and independence from the stodgy old-fashioned expectations of their families, their society (including these so-called independent women) also mock those who do have sex before marriage. They so rarely have any real autonomy, any real direction in their lives. And so, these women exist between putting up a bravado of strength and independence with no way of actually directing their lives and the ways they wish to be perceived.

Come to think of it, it's not just Turkish society. And it's not just in the 70s or 80s.

Nostalgia is a funny thing, and I got a strong sense that Pamuk wrote this in an almost sneering manner. "Look how simple life was back then, how much fun it was, how beautiful life could have been," he appears to be saying, before slapping the reader in the face when they realize that life is still like this, and it is actually not, in fact, simple or fun or beautiful. He is making fun of the way we humans tend to look back in the past with rose-colored lenses when things are going badly in the present. We don't even know what we're yearning for to return, and even if we got it, it's not what we thought it was.

Which makes it all the more ironic that I decided to read The Museum of Innocence out of some misplaced sense of nostalgia. The magic of Istanbul had seeped into my head. Even funnier is when I read the book *after* leaving Istanbul, the descriptions of the streets and the neighborhoods -- all recognizable to me -- made me just want to return to that perfect period in April. It's like a cycle of yearning for a time that I'm don't think can ever be properly re-lived.

CBR8 Review #8: The White Castle by Orphan Pamuk

I wanted to give Pamuk another shot because I had read The Museum of Innocence with such overwhelming feelings of nostalgia coupled with dislike for the main character that I really couldn't say, when asked, whether if I liked him or not. The White Castle was a really quick read -- I read it all in a single night -- but unfortunately, I think it's going to be my last Pamuk. It's just too bizarre, and I think I just don't really *get* him.

The novel takes place in 17th century Turkey, and the narrator is an Italian scholar who got captured by troops from the Ottoman Empire when he was sailing to Naples. The Pasha of the empire takes a liking to him because he has some medical knowledge and was able to solve his ailments, and he introduces him to a court scholar named Hoja, who looks exactly like the narrator. During his imprisonment, he was asked by the Pasha to convert to Islam from his Christian religion, a request that he kept refusing. While he should have been killed for pissing off the Pasha, he was instead gifted to Hoja as a slave.

Hoja, mystified by this Italian scholar's wealth of knowledge, ordered him to teach him everything he knew and more. Soon the student and the teacher were one and the same, exchanging ideas to reach solutions. But this dynamic is strained at times by the master-slave relationship, with the narrator choosing to withhold his approval of Hoja's knowledge if he was upset at being a slave.

I'm gonna be honest here -- I'm really not sure what the point of this book was. The themes seem to be about how people can have a tenuous grasp on what their selves are, and lose a sense of their being if they are challenged. There's also a bit of the unreliable narrator trope at play here; at the end, the reader is not sure if the narrator is Hoja or the Italian scholar.

I get all of this, but I think I just sort of lost the point of the plot. This book is very simply written, and it was easy to get through it quickly, so it's worth a read if you have a night to spare. But I'm not sure if I am used to this sort of ambiguous, mystical-unrealism writing. It's also a completely different voice from The Museum of Innocence, though the theme of being conflicted with your selves and your personhood is a similar strain that runs through both novels.

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