Writer Orhan Pamuk at the Museum of Innocence

If you love to find that special sweet spot between novels and travel to help bring alive the places you read about in books, Istanbul is a city that should be on your list. For it is here that you will find a unique museum, a museum that offers glimpses from the lives of a novel’s characters and the world they inhabit.

And it is none other than Nobel-laureate and Turkish author Orhan Pamuk who is behind the concept. “The Museum of Innocence” — the novel and the eponymous museum — is centred on the stories of two Istanbul families. Pamuk, who developed the idea of the museum alongside the book, explores the unique notion that a museum should work in its capacity to reveal the humanity of individuals.

The novel

In “The Museum of Innocence”, Pamuk’s first novel since winning the Nobel prize, the author ventures into the precarious zone of cultural controversies with an inspiringly serene confidence.

With the same unease as that of the protagonist, Kemal Basmaci, the author is attempting to unveil the honesty behind emotions that underlie romantic love. Some call the novel an innocent love story, but the odds that stand in the way of Kemal and his beloved make the plot unique.

“The Museum of Innocence” is set in Istanbul of the 1970s and tells the story of Kemal’s besotted love for his distant relation Füsun. It is 1975. One perfect spring in Istanbul. Kemal and Sibel, who hail from two prominent families, are about to get engaged. But then Kemal meets Füsun, a beautiful shopgirl and a distant relative, he becomes fascinated with her. And soon, a rift begins to open between Kemal and the world of the Westernised Istanbul bourgeoisie. In his pursuit of Füsun over the next eight years, Kemal becomes a compulsive collector of objects that chronicle his lovelorn progress.

Over time, Kemal, after a certain tragic turn of events, devotes the rest of his life to creating a museum in his love’s memory. He amasses a museum that is both a map of a society and of his heart. He fills the museum with objects connected to his relationship with Füsun, such as her hair clips, cigarette butts, dirty coffee cups.

The novel is seen as a glimpse into the lives of Istanbul’s wealthy classes and the dilemma they faced in balancing their traditional values with the increasingly luring Western culture of the time. There are instances in the story where one can draw direct parallels with the author and the protagonist.

In the early 1970s, a young Pamuk, who was an architecture student and aspiring painter with a keen interest in Western literature, would have driven from his home in one of the vehicles he mentions in the book. He would have breezed across the Golden Horn to shop for Turkish translations of Thomas Mann and other European authors.

The book is like a travelogue for the city of Istanbul, but seen through the fabric of an ancient settlement here. Pamuk speaks of the issues of sexuality, gender, modernisation and religion, while taking us along the city streets in vintage American cars and on ferry journeys up the Bosphorus.

The museum

Why did Pamuk create a museum of this sort? He has no straight answer. It is akin to asking a novelist: “Why did you write this book?” Pamuk most often replies: “Because I love museums.” As he recounts in his autobiographical work, “Istanbul”, he wanted to become a painter and an architect until, at the age of 23, he suddenly abandoned both dreams to become instead a novelist. Pamuk discusses this question in the opening of “The Innocence of Objects”, the museum’s catalogue.

While “The Museum of Innocence” was published in 2008, the physical museum came into being in 2012. It is built in the part of Istanbul where Füsun’s parents have their home, and where Kemal spends a lot of time hoping to catch a few moments with her (and stealing the odd teacup for his collection). Pamuk’s novel is partly an exercise in cultural fetishism, as, after rejection, the lovelorn Kemal meticulously collects every scrap connected with Füsun, however trivial they might seem for a museum.

In “The Innocence of Objects”, Pamuk also lays out a manifesto for museums. He calls for exchanging “large national museums such as the Louvre and the Hermitage” for “smaller, more individualistic, and cheaper” museums, taking stories in the place of histories. The Museum of Innocence won the European Museum of the Year Award on May 17, 2014.

Situated in an area of the city famous for the old antique shops that line its narrow streets, the museum reflects the distinct character of everyday objects from the upper-class Istanbul of the 1970s. It consists of a series of displays, each corresponding to the 83 chapters in the novel.

The museum allows free entry to those who bring a copy of the book. A ticket placed in the 83rd chapter will be stamped before ushering the reader in.

Everything in the museum’s four floors references the novel and the time in which the book is set. Yet, Pamuk says that the museum and novel can be experienced independent of each other: “Just as the novel is entirely comprehensible without a visit to the museum, so is the museum a place that can be visited and experienced on its own,” he writes in the catalogue.

The movie

British filmmaker Grant Gee’s “Innocence of Memories” is based on Pamuk’s museum — a double met-construction that is only accentuated by the film casually referring to Füsun and Kemal as corporeal figures.

Pamuk’s positioning of himself as a fictional character in a key scene in his novel reminds one of Roald Dahl’s special appearances in the climax of some his stories. Pamuk’s habit as a loafer on Istanbul streets and his inclination to see the city as a source of collective memories — innocent, individual and cultural — will surely give Gee’s film a kick into the most rarefied of intellectual spheres. The film was much acclaimed following its Venice premiere in September last year, and it had its London premiere in January.

Pamuk was in the news recently as he dramatically compared the current political situation in Turkey to that of the Soviet Union under Stalin while deploring the “attack on political commentators”.

A visit to this museum by Pamuk, and you cannot help wonder how passionate and brilliant this land surrounded by controversies today has been. Also, if you are lucky, you can catch the man himself there.

How to get there:

- The Museum of Innocence is in the neighbourhood of Çukurcuma, between Istiklal Avenue and Tophane. Walking distances from nearby landmarks are (in minutes): 12 from Taksim, 8 from Galatasaray, 8 from Tophane, 10 from Istanbul Modern, 10 from Cihangir. For those making their way to the museum by tram, the nearest stop is Tophane, an 8-minute walk away.

- The museum is open daily except Monday. You can buy tickets from the booth on the left of the entrance between 10am and 5.30pm or make a group reservation by sending an e-mail to info@masumiyetmuzesi.org.

- Ticket price for an adult is 25 Turkish Liras (Dh31). Students with ID cards need to pay only 10 liras. You can also buy an annual unlimited pass for 100 liras.

- In addition to these, the ticket printed in the closing pages of the novel “The Museum of Innocence” can be stamped at the ticket office in exchange for an invitation to the museum.

Archana R.D. aka B’lu is an artist-journalist based in the UAE who writes on global art and culture.