Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006 and subsequently wrote this novel. Pamuk has been rightly praised for his meticulous writing style. This book has been beautifully translated from his Turkish to English by Maureen Freely.
This is a story about a love that lasts a lifetime, an obsessive love by a 30 year old man named Kemal for Fusun an 18 year old distant cousin. The story takes place in 1975 in Istanbul. I have never been to Istanbul, but after reading this book, I felt as if I knew the city intimately. Pamuk even includes a city map of the area where the story takes place; Pamuk is good at placing the reader in a city he so obviously loves. The 70s was an interesting decade all over the world, and in Turkey the youth were breaking away from old family traditions and identifying themselves as European, that is, if they came from the privileged wealthy class.
Kemal who is from a wealthy family is engaged to Sibel, also a child of privilege. She is educated, fashionable and part of the same social circle as Kemal. It would seem they are destined for each other. Then one day by chance, Kemal enters a shop where the strikingly beautiful but lower class Fusun is working. It was love at first sight, a passionate absorbing love that began to interfere with Kemal's daily life. Their affair begins almost instantaneously. They begin to meet in an old and unused apartment that belongs to Kemal's family. The uneducated and virginal Fusun is very unlike the modern Sibel who takes sexual relationships in her stride as part of the youthful revolution she sees around her. To Fusun, this relationship must end in marriage, while Kemal, as much as he is obsessed with Fusun, still is thinking like a Turkish man of the times. He is convinced he can marry Sibel and keep Fusun as his mistress.
This situation is bound to cause trouble, and thus the novel progresses drawing the reader into Kemal's growing obsession and his inability to control the situation. Fusun leaves Kemal, his relationship with Sibel falls apart and in the year it takes for Kemal to find Fusun, he descends into a depression that almost undoes him. He finds himself retreating to the shabby apartment and collecting souvenirs of the affair, assembling a museum, glorifying his trysts with Fusun. He begins drinking heavily and watching the single channel t.v. vacantly. He loses all ambition and leaves the family business to his brother to run.
During his year of searching for Fusun, Kemal is driven around the city by the family's chauffeur in his father's old 1956 Chevrolet which at that time was a symbol of wealth in Turkey. Thus the reader is privy to all the scenery of the coastal city on the Bosporus as well as the endless driving through the different sections of Istabul. Without going into the further details of the story, I can say that after he finds Fusun a further eight years of unfulfilled passion go by. Kemal and Fusun become enmeshed in a strange dance of manners and mixture of old and new social mores. Kemal's obsession begins to weary and grate on the reader. This part of the book could have been made shorter without losing the thread of the story or the sense of the characters. I began to long for the end and resisted the temptation to skip ahead to see where this story was leading.
Orhan Pamuk likes to insert himself into his novels and he does so in this story as well, so he enters the story as a character who is a family friend. It is a little disorienting to the reader, but charming, as it makes the story more real. The other characters in the book were equally realistic and I felt I knew these people very well and that I was living life with them as I read along.
While I got into the plot and lives of the characters and loved touring though Istambul back in the day, Kemal's obsessive personality got in the way of my total enjoyment of this novel, and I was happy to move on when I closed the last page.