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21.1.15

À mon chevet: 'The Museum of Innocence'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
Except for my years in America, I had spent my whole life in this big apartment whose sitting room and wide balcony overlooked Teşvikiye Mosque, where one or two funerals took place every day, and when I was a child, these spectacles initiated us into the fearful mystery of death. Not just Istanbul's rich but also famous politicians, generals, journalists, singers, and artists had their funeral prayers said at the mosque, considered a prestigious point of departure for the "final journey," whereby the coffin was carried slowly on shoulders to Nişantaşi Square -- the procession accompanied, depending on the rank of the deceased, by a military band or the city council ensemble playing Chopin's Funeral March.

[...] Just before a funeral of broad public interest -- if the deceased was a prime minister, a famous tycoon, or a singer -- the doorbell would ring and unexpected guests would appear, saying, "I was just passing by, and I thought I'd drop in," and though my mother would never let her manners lapse, later on she would say, "They didn't come to see us but to see the funeral." And so we began to think of the ceremony not as a comfort against the sting of death or a chance to pay one's last respects to the deceased, but as an amusing diversion. [...]

Like everyone else Füsun was wearing the photograph of Belkis on her collar. It had become commonplace at funerals following political assassinations (so frequent in those days), and the custom had quickly gained currency among the Istanbul bourgeoisie. Many years later I was able to assemble a small collection of these tokens, and I display them here. When crowds of sighing (but inwardly content) socialites sporting sunglasses took to such displays, like so many right- and left-wing militants, these photographs would give an ordinary lighthearted society funeral intimations of an ideal that might be worth dying for, a hint of common purpose, and a certain gravitas. In imitation of the Western conceit, the photograph was framed in black, by which formerly happy images appropriated for death notices assumed the cast of mourning, and the most frivolous images could attain in death the somber dignity usually reserved for victims of political assassination.

I left without coming eye to eye with anyone, rushing off to the Merhamet Apartments, where I impatiently awaited Füsun. Every now and then I glanced at my watch. Much later, and without giving it much thought, I found myself parting the dusty curtains to look through the always closed window that gave onto Teşvikiye Avenue, and I saw Belkis's coffin pass below slowly in the funeral car.

Some people spend their entire lives in pain, owing to the misfortune of being poor, stupid, or outcast from society -- this thought passed through me, gliding by with the measured pace of the coffin, then disappeared. Since the age of twenty I had felt myself protected by an invisible armor from all variety of trouble and misery. And so it followed that to spend too much time thinking about other people's misery might make me unhappy, too, and in so doing, pierce my armor.

-- Orhan Pamuk, The Museum of Innocence (translation by Maureen Freely), pp. 81-83
Lovely people keep buying me books, and so the detour from my Balzac reading project continues. So, after loving My Name Is Red and, to a lesser extent, Snow, I have been more than happy to dive into the Orhan Pamuk book that followed them, The Museum of Innocence. This book also has an unusual narrative structure, as the presentation of a tour guide leading you through an actual museum, filled with artifacts handled by the characters in the story or significantly placed within their lives. Pamuk published this book after winning the Nobel Prize, in 2006, and he then went and bought a house in Istanbul, turning it into an actual Museum of Innocence that opened to the public in 2012. In the last few pages of the book is a ticket to the "Museum of Innocence," which one can use to gain entry to the actual museum.

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