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Secret Love in the Lost City

November 4, 2009

by Pico Iyer
from The New York Review of Books

The Museum of Innocence
by Orhan Pamuk, translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely
Knopf, 536 pp., $28.95

Istanbul, with its many signs of the time when it was the center of the world, becomes something of a museum in the work of Orhan Pamuk, a writer clearly in love with memory itself, and his hometown, and everything that’s been lost there. In his 2003 memoir, Istanbul, the five-story Pamuk Apartments in which he spent nearly all his first five decades are described as a “dark museum house,” cluttered with sugar bowls, snuffboxes, censers, pianos that are never played, and glass cabinets that are never opened. The people inside the rooms have something of a neglected and left-behind quality, too; they’re devoutly attentive to the fashions and perceived habits of Europe, and yet they know (or at least their sharp-eyed chronicler does) that Europe is spending very little time thinking of them.

Foreigners, Pamuk notes in that book, love to enshroud his city in easy, abstract terms of “East and West”; for him, the real division at the heart of his culture is between local tradition and the imported new. And it is in giving that tension a vividly human, private face—in showing how it plays out in every piece of chewing gum or choice of a Sophia Loren movie—that he gives his theme distinction. It was his growing up in a secular, westward-looking family, Pamuk suggests, that moved him to seek out his country’s indigenous, sometimes mystical traditions; a further irony is that he learned how to give Turkey its own voice by schooling himself in works from abroad. more

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