(This is not so much a review than some simple thoughts after readingThe Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Maureen Freely)
Kemal is a collector unlike any I have met before. In fact on the first encounter you would not guess that he has an apartment full of things. You would have guessed that he has a spare apartment, yes, maybe more than one, because he looks the part — a rich society boy with no worries and plenty of cash to burn. But full of collected things?
And they are not the things you would expect; no expensive crystals or antiquities. Instead, the ordinary contemporaries: salt shakers, china dogs, cigarette stubs, soda bottles, printed photographs, ripped off calendar pages, socks and sneakers, teacups, glasses, seashells, long-broken alarm clocks, watches, hats and scarves, newspaper clips and strange documents, handkerchiefs, a can opener, empty cooking oil bottles, empty cologne vials, false teeth. And a myriad of other things jumbled together in a dusty apartment. I mean, who would keep a salt shaker? People do not keep soda bottles, unless out of severe laziness. Photographs I can tolerate, but torn-off calendar pages? Collected is too kind a word — I would prefer the word hoarded.
Kemal is clearly stung that I misunderstand his collection. That I do not see the same worth in it as he does. That I eye with suspicion his search. That I find his nicking of the objects Fusun touched strange, even creepy. I did. He made me wonder: what is the line that divides worth and worthlessness, collections and hoards? What do you get from keeping things? The inability to part with things – it seems like a disease! He does not answer immediately. Instead, he sits me down and tells me about Fusun, his beloved and also his father, who passed away, and his ageing, patient mother. He told me about each object: Fusun would finger this while she did her maths; father had this on his side table probably his whole life; my mother always wrapped this up as tombala gifts. He walks with me around Istanbul, pinpointing ordinary sidewalks and cafes that witnessed his tale. He also brings me along to the museums he frequents, hoping that I, too, will find solace in them the way he does. Hoping that I, too, will feel the timelessness those spaces bring. He even introduces me to his collector friends, allowing me glimpses of their treasures and hoards — their other world.
He is patient, and that virtue of his has always worked in his favour. In Fusun’s case and mine. I eventually understand. It takes some time, but I do understand.
I understand because I realise that I am a collector too, one of the Bashful Ones, to use Kemal’s categorisation, and an Unwilling One, to use mine. I, for a start, have a habit with receipts. When they fill my wallet to a ridiculous extent, I stash them away to some receipt archive (boxes, envelopes) I would eventually forget. Rarely the bin. It may well be my futile attempt to track my spending, but more often than not, their purpose is to remind me, with the imprinted date and time, of those dinners and outings I had – who I went with; that book I bought – who I saw at the bookstore that day; the silly things I bought – remember, no more next time. My mind would scrunch in recollection. It is strangely fulfilling.
I also had treasure chests for each stage I scrambled through: primary schools, high school, college, university. Little mementos and birthday cards become my only link to barely-remembered friends. Childish notes and letters I cannot fathom ever having received are there, jumbled up with pictures I cannot remember being taken. Grainy reminders of things past. I have a box of stuff from my travels — fading halves of flight tickets, brochures in languages I cannot read, small river stones, ticket stubs, restaurant napkins, tons of empty postcards, scribbles of translated words, train passes, ripped pages of foreign calendars (I am so Kemal!), self-drawn maps, phone numbers and addresses, and more receipts. I am hopeless with journals – the mess is my only account. When I move, as I often do in a pseudo-nomadic way, I steel myself and throw away most of them – but never all.
The inability to part with things – is it really a disease? Is it that bad a thing, something to be ashamed of?
I also understand Kemal because sometimes I look at my father’s books and imagine him reading them in his reading glasses – my favourite image of him. And I wonder what he was thinking when his brows tense up slightly. And I wish I will soon understand the things he understood. Only then will I feel worthy. All these thoughts make me both happy and sad.
I therefore understand that people leave traces of themselves in objects, moulding things to their personality, both knowingly and not. A watch is just a watch, but it is also your father’s loyal companion; a pair of shoes your little sister wore when she was one year old; the prayer mat your grandfather used daily; his old bicycle; the books on the shelf, which singularly do not imply much, but as a collection bares your soul in a creepily accurate way – your hopes and dreams and principles and wants. I can give you two aprons, one newly bought, another your mother’s. They are not the same. I can ask your close friends to pick ten things to represent you, and the curation will smell of your soul. Often a friend would excitedly nudge: “That wallet is so you!”
I therefore understand that we add value to ordinary things. We add depth to manufactured objects. We transform void to substance. We are such territorial freaks, leaving our stamp wherever we go. We are such romantic creatures, seeing meaning in everything. Letters in careful handwriting; a simple Post-It with some scribbles; movie tickets; all kind of tickets; doodles on lecture notes margins; a shared map with marks all over. It is amazing how plain paper multiplies in value by one stroke of a pen. One item can be a witness to so many things. I remember the last days of school, where everybody grabbed one item from the class or dormitory – a souvenir for the one year we shared together. I look at a note from my long-lost friend and smile, remembering who she was, and wondering if she has changed. Of course she has, but at least I have this note of when she was still the same.
Those things, we take time to part with them. For hopelessly sentimental creatures like me, the time is embarrassingly longer. I tried to rationalise using the usual trick: if I don’t miss it, I don’t need it. If I don’t even remember that it existed, I can live without it. But that discounts the dizzying rush of feelings I get upon discovering it (I cannot believe I still have this!). Surely that alone gives it a little more weight?
Different people have different sentiments. Even if some are more rational in parting with materials, I like to imagine that all of us have that split second hesitation of recognition: that this bore a fragment of me, and the one I love.
Kemal, I do share your sentiment.
Image is Downtown in 90 Minutes by WordsManifest on Flickr.
Alia Salleh recommends The Museum of Innocence, and all other Pamuk books. With all her heart and exaggerated soul.