The Rags of Time

Istanbul

Part of the delight in “The Museum of Innocence” is in scouting out the serious games, yet giving oneself over to the charms of Pamuk’s storytelling. He often makes use of genre, turns the expected response to his purpose. His 1998 book “My Name Is Red” may be claimed as a historical novel with an embedded mystery, and yet again as a political story — the miniatures of Eastern book art headed toward obsolescence, facing off with Western art, its perspective and freedom of invention. Such worldly engagement is of no concern to Kemal: “I have no desire to interrupt my story with descriptions of the street clashes between fervent nationalists and fervent Communists at that time, except to say what we were witnessing was an extension of the cold war.” It’s one of many denials that maintain his indifference to the political scene, and it’s in keeping with his character. A feckless soul, an aging bachelor living with his mother, he is dealt a position in a family business he barely attends to. Meanwhile, during the years of their separation, the beautiful Fusun has married a would-be movie director. Night after night Kemal joins them at her family’s dinner table, a threesome locked in a hopeless love story. It never occurs to the constant lover that Fusun may be ordinary — much like the adored girl in Nabokov’s “Lolita.” Kemal is chauffeured from his mother’s house in Nisantasi to Cukurcuma, passively watching the nightly news with Fusun’s family. Years flipping by, he tags along with the cinema crowd in Beyoglu, the beloved one aiming to be an actress. Kemal’s dogged endurance may try our patience, though his dead-end accounting provides a bleak comedy: “According to my notes, during the 409 weeks that my story will now describe, I went there for supper 1,593 times.” Maureen Freely’s translation captures the novelist’s playful performance as well as his serious collusion with Kemal. Her melding of tones follows Pamuk’s agility, to redirect our vision to the gravity of his tale: “This is not simply a story of lovers, but of the entire realm, that is, of Istanbul.”

more from Maureen Howard at the NYT here.

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