''The Museum of Innocence'' – A Declaration of Love to the City of Istanbul

Orhan Pamuk is Turkey's most famous writer. In 2006 he also became the first ever Turkish writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize. He recently presented a very special museum to his home city of Istanbul. An interview by Aygül Cizmecioglu

By Aygül Cizmecioglu

Your novel "The Museum of Innocence" was published in 2008. Which came first – the idea for the book or for the museum?

Orhan Pamuk: The two ideas evolved together. It was not a case of my having written a successful book and then deciding to turn it into a museum.

​​When my daughter was small I used to take her to school every day and we always passed by a house that stood on the corner of a street. And suddenly, one day, I had the absurd idea of telling a story in that house. So I bought it and began to write.

Both museum and book take us back to the Istanbul of the 1970s. The story concerns a wealthy industrialist's son and his love for a poor sales girl. In order to get closer to her, he collects all the things associated with her – from a tea glass to a hair grip. These things can now be found in your museum. Where did they come from?

Orhan Pamuk: The collection has grown over the years. I picked up many of the things at flea markets – the old postcards of Istanbul for example. Some of the old black and white photos are from friends or from my own family. I took my inspiration from these everyday objects and gradually they found there way into my novel.

Then you share a passion for collecting things with your protagonist Kemal?

Orhan Pamuk: Not really. I do tend to pick things up from time to time, and I often spend hours in antique shops, but I would not really describe myself as a collector. I do have 16,000 books, but I have read all of them. A collector would be someone with 20,000 books who had never so much as opened one of them. Collecting is about owning, it is a compensation for something else. Just as it is with Kemal. He collects these things as a way of holding on to his love. It is a kind of obsession.

Why everyday objects?

Orhan Pamuk: I love the profane magic such things possess and that one discovers this only at the second glance. Just think how it is to find an old cinema ticket, by chance, in a jacket pocket, years after you saw the film. Suddenly everything comes back to you – not only the film but the smell of the cinema and the atmosphere of the evening. Such things bring back memories, tell us entire stories.

The museum showcases are full of newspaper articles about such things as the growing power of the military, or the rise of student protests in Turkey. How important was it for you to include this political dimension?

Orhan Pamuk: I like when politics is there in my books, just below the surface, something we are aware of, but that does not force itself upon us. Of course, in Turkey, one cannot leave out this aspect.

83 cabinets, one for each chapter in the book. Orhan Pamuk bought the house in the district of Beyoglu and turned it into a museum. The building was reworked by German architects and supported by funds from foundations

​​My country has been shaped by Islamic values and by its own traditions, but at the same time there is a great yearning for what the West has to offer. Such contradictory attitudes, even nowadays, are what Turkey is all about.

Is this something you are critical of?

Orhan Pamuk: No, I don't make any moral judgements. I simply look on and take notes. This contradictoriness is something one particularly notices among the upper classes in Turkey. They like to have their Western status symbols, to show how modern they are, while at the same time venerating their glorious sultans from the Ottoman period. It is the sort of inconsistent behaviour that for me as a writer is fascinating.

You fell foul of the authorities in 2005 because of statements you made on the Armenian conflict. To what extent has your relationship with Turkey changed since then?

Orhan Pamuk: Of course there was immense political pressure put on me at that time. I took up a position as a visiting professor in the US and returned only occasionally to Turkey. And when I did go back I needed to have personal security. It wasn't a very pleasant experience. At the same time, however, I came to realise just how important the idea of the museum had become for me. I wanted to create a place of remembrance – a place for myself and for my home city Istanbul.

The "Museum of Innocence" is also a declaration of love to your home city. I don't think there is anyone who describes the melancholy of that city in quite the way you do. Why do you think this is?

Orhan Pamuk: Because it is where I was born and brought up. I can't help but smile when I hear myself referred to in the Western media as an "Istanbul writer". Really, all I do is to write about those things that have been around me all my life and that I know best. And that is Istanbul.

Aygül Cizmecioglu

© Deutsche Welle / Qantara.de 2012

Translation: Ron Walker

Qantara.de editor: Lewis Gropp