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This novel is smoking

By Geoff Wisner

The Museum of Innocence, translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely, was the first novel published by Orhan Pamuk after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. A memory novel of more than 500 pages, it takes the reader back to the Istanbul of Pamuk’s youth, and belies the common belief that once a writer has become a Nobel laureate, his or her best work is in the past.

In a sensitive review published here in 2010, Carla Baricz gave this book its due—but oddly failed to mention  one of its most striking features. More cigarettes are smoked in The Museum of Innocence than in any book I’ve ever read.

Once upon a time, all grown-ups smoked, or so it seemed. You could smoke in bars and restaurants, at your desk at work, in a movie theater, or even in a subway. My father smoked cigarettes, then switched to pipes for a number of years before quietly giving it up. My mother took up smoking because all the other nurses at the hospital smoked. She gave it up after I was born, but it may explain why my two brothers turned out taller than me.

The rituals of smoking were once a reliable way for beginning writers—and sometimes more experienced ones—to give their characters something to do. Lighting a cigarette, drawing on one, blowing smoke, or stubbing out a butt provided a useful pause in a conversation. Offering a cigarette, or lighting one for someone else, could be a moment of connection.

In “Salinger’s Cigarettes,” one of the essays in her new collection Forty-One False Starts, Janet Malcolm notes that Alfred Kazin once predicted there would be “learned theses” on The Use of the Ash Tray in J.D. Salinger’s Stories. No one, he said, “has made so much of Americans lighting up, reaching for the ash tray, setting up the ash tray with one hand while with the other they reach for a ringing telephone.” When you consider Janet Malcolm’s observation that Salinger liked to set his scenes in “small, sealed-off spaces,” you become seriously concerned for his characters’ health.

Now that smokers have been reduced to a few tenacious communities—the working class, the mentally ill, the tragically hip—smoking in literature has become a way of marking the smoker as idiosyncratic, even evil, not an everyday activity that everyone does a little differently.

But in The Museum of Innocence, smoking is omnipresent, and the obsessive love of the protagonist Kemal for his lost lover Füsun includes close attention to her smoking habits. Cigarette butts are among the many objects that Kemal steals from Füsun’s home and later enshrines in the museum he creates as a mausoleum for his love.

In Chapter 68, “4,213 Cigarette Stubs,” Kemal develops the subject at great and sometimes nauseating length.

During my eight years of going to the Keskins’ for supper, I was able to squirrel away 4,213 of Füsun’s cigarette butts. Each one of these had touched her rosy lips and entered her mouth, some even touching her tongue and becoming moist, as I would discover when I put my finger on the filter soon after she had stubbed the cigarette out; the stubs, reddened by her lovely lipstick, bore the unique impress of her lips at some moment whose memory was laden with anguish or bliss, making these stubs artifacts of singular intimacy….

Sometimes, when Füsun was stubbing out her cigarette, our eyes would unexpectedly meet. If she was watching a love story, or engrossed in the endless succession of shocking events in a documentary about the Second World War, with a dirge playing in the background, Füsun would stub out her cigarette without ceremony, and without showing much intent. However, if, as in the case of this specimen, our eyes happened to meet, a charge passed between us, jolting us both, as we remembered at the same time why I was sitting at that table, and her stub would reflect the particular confusion she was feeling, thereby endowing the butt with an unusual shape.

At the end of the book, in a startling beating-down of the fourth wall, Orhan Pamuk appears as a character in his own story, announcing himself to the reader with “Hello, this is Orhan Pamuk!” He narrates the final section in his own voice, and describes his meetings with some of the people Kemal has described.

The character “Orhan Pamuk” meets Sibel, Kemal’s fiancée when he first meets Füsun, and then his wife for the length of a short, doomed, marriage. Seen through her eyes, and with the passage of time, Kemal’s incessant smoking is no longer debonair.

“The man to whom I’d become engaged at the Hilton, who so loved life, who was always so charming, and so full of fun—he’d vanished, and in his place was an old man cut off from the world and life itself, with a long face, and a cigarette hanging from his mouth.”

Published Oct 9, 2013   Copyright 2013 Geoff Wisner

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