The Portrait of a Lover

Adnan Yıldız

The Turkish word “Kar” is used for snow, and is also the title of an Orhan Pamuk novel, set in the eastern Turkish city of Kars. Appearing throughout his work are civilians, the army, politicians and the idea of modernity. Crime and morality are also some of the social dilemmas that create individual tragedies at the sites where both the public and private are violated. My earliest memory of Orhan Pamuk is of a public library in Karaman, my hometown. Karaman is a small city in Anatolia, not even as big as Kars. The same political climate existed in both Kars and Karaman.
The two are not far from each other, connected in much the same way as Anatolia and Istanbul are. Upon encountering my first Orhan Pamuk novel, I remember that the public library had been moved from its old building into a newly renovated one. All the things that one would miss about the old library— its smell, its particular light, and the old, scratched up wooden shelves—had been replaced by new elements of design. No distinguishable features from the previous space had been kept. Everything looked like an airport, a hotel or a contemporary art museum. Sleek and clean, with a hardly-bearable lightness, the library uncannily contained the same combination of glass, steel, and 1990s-style polished shelves. It felt like nowhere.
Füsun was from Istanbul, and lived with her family throughout her whole life. At the very end of Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel, The Museum of Innocence (first published in 2008), she died in a car accident. It was the first time she had left them. Füsun is the muse of the main character, Kemal. Throughout the novel, Pamuk talks about Kemal’s strong form of obsession for Füsun: his memories of having spent his childhood and youth with her, as well as the eight long years of having stalked her, later on. After having lost Füsun in the car accident, just before their honeymoon, Kemal relinquishes all hope for life and his last wish is to establish a museum full of Füsun—a portrait of a lover.

The Museum of Innocence, Istanbul, 2012. Photo © Adnan Yıldız
The Museum of Innocence, Istanbul, 2012. Photo © Adnan Yıldız

While he was hopelessly in love with Füsun, Kemal (fictively) collected many of the items and objects that they had shared. Used cinema tickets, her earrings, newspapers, postcards, everyday objects and all kinds of ephemera—pictures of celebrities, logos of popular brands of their time. All the way down to the remains of the cigarettes that he had smoked (or supposedly smoked) while he was thinking of her. He inscribed everything with a date.
Orhan Pamuk worked for several years on the project. At first, the novel included the map of Kemal’s museum on the last page, in addition to the news for those fanatic readers who would go looking for the museum in Istanbul, and would be disappointed to find the building closed. Pamuk’s name later surfaced with the launch of the 2010 Istanbul European Cultural Capital program, which was a political failure for the Turkish supporters of the European Union membership campaign. After speculations about corruption at the organizational level, Pamuk took a step back. He eventually brought his project to fruition as an independent institution and a not-for- profit foundation. The museum was inaugurated in 2012. Eleven thousand people visited it in its first three months of being open to the public.

The Museum of Innocence, Istanbul, 2012. Photo © Adnan Yıldız
The Museum of Innocence, Istanbul, 2012. Photo © Adnan Yıldız

In several of his interviews, Pamuk has mentioned the absence of a city museum or an institution that held the records of the modern urbanization of Istanbul. Having reconsidered this question whilst visiting the museum earlier this summer, I have decided that it has lost its relevance for the locale. The museum space is dominated by wooden boxes filled with ephemera, and objects including projections and small installations. Its staged atmosphere attempts to reflect the silence and pain of the character, Kemal, who dies after his agreement with the author. Nevertheless, one of the many concerns about this experiment is the artistic approach to the translation between two realms of imagination: namely from text-based imagination (the bulk of the material) into image-based imagination (the remainder). 

The Museum of Innocence, Istanbul, 2012. Photo © Adnan Yıldız

Orhan Pamuk produced his museum project as an artist, a curator and the author of the story. In so doing, he created a place for the imaginings of Kemal and Füsun, and he made them real for his readers. His design taste was not as refined as his writing skills were, however. The representation of Kemal (especially on the top floor) is very theatrical. Far removed from being a conceptual approach, it fails to communicate with the viewer and does not suggest that it was left behind by the character. In general, the museum resembles the public library that I used to borrow Pamuk novels from. Not only does its architecture seem not to have made use of the potential offered by the relationship with its location, it lacks a sense of sensitivity towards its context. In the neighborhood surrounding it are so many antique shops selling items similar to those found on display in the exhibition. Pamuk’s museum is frozen in its own conceptual time and spatial thinking, and does not respond to any clear intellectual or political position. What happened to Kemal’s Istanbul, Füsun’s view, and their city?

Istanbul now has a museum of literature that has been the fodder for long discussions over many years. It would be interesting to see what would happen if Pamuk acted differently, and worked in a more performative and collaborative way at a moment when Istanbul- based contemporary artistic and critical practices have particularly been flourishing. Surprisingly indeed, Istanbul still lacks a city museum, or an equivalent, to memorialize the history of its city life. Yet Pamuk’s museum seems too modest an intervention in this regard, and due to the lack of investment, it cannot purport itself as such. Rest assured, however, one can still visit the Orhan Pamuk Shop at the end of the tour in order to buy all kinds of Pamuk literature.

The Museum of Innocence, Istanbul, 2012. Photo © Kristina Kramer