Set in Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk’s novel explores what it meant to be a male or a female in the 1970s, a time of rapid social change, and when the city’s trade with the West intensified. It describes the consequences of romantic love or the loss thereof. The novel is poised uncomfortably between modern and traditional attitudes towards virginity, love and sex, and how honour and shame coordinate such attitudes.
The story revolves around Kemal, a wealthy Istanbuli aristocrat, who fell in love with distant relative, Füsun, while buying a handbag for his fiancée, Sibel, a beautiful and sympathetic Sorbonne-educated girl. What follows in the next six weeks is an intense and secretive physical and emotional relationship. Their affair becomes a key moment in his life. However, Füsun disappears after Kemal’s engagement to Sibel, and her disappearance awakens Kemal to the depth of his attachment to her, going through a painful period in the hope of recovering his lost happiness. Sibel and Kemal’s engagement breaks off, and Kemal devotes the rest of his life to creating a museum in memory of his lost love, stocking it with objects reminiscent of her. The novel describes the various stages of Kemal’s passion: profound erotic obsession, happiness, jealousy, despair, the successive waves of hope and fear.
[Sunday 9th August 2020, Cambridge]