Modern Times

Istanbul, 1959.

Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar (1901–1962) endured one of the most thoroughgoing modernization drives of the twentieth century—Kemal Atatürk’s revolution in Turkey, which left few areas of cultural life untouched. Over several years in the 1920s, Atatürk completed an aggressive Westernizing campaign intended to erase any semblance of indigenous or Islamic culture: He ended the caliphate; closed all religious schools and organizations; instituted Western legal codes; banned all outward symbols of Islam, such as fezzes and veils; and replaced the Arabic alphabet with a Latin one. As a distinguished poet and scholar, Tanpınar registered the effects these changes had on Turkish culture, as well as the malaise that took over those left stranded among the new structures of modern life. Yet he did more than elegize lost traditions. Tanpınar was familiar with many of his contemporaries in the West, like Gide and Valéry; he often criticized Turkish novelists for failing to create psychologically deep, “round” characters like those found in the classic realist works of nineteenth-century Europe. “For most of our novelists, the hero is simply a tool considered necessary for the flow of the action,” he wrote in a 1930 article. “They failed to realize the importance of psychology. They assumed it would be sufficient to intersperse a few women with baggy pants and some adobe huts into a banal plot in an attempt to relate their works to real life.”

In other words, Tanpınar himself sought a kind of modernity for the Turkish novel. But like the cosmopolitan intellectuals treated in Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire, he was determined to produce a modernity that was alternative to that offered by the West. He wanted works that would not fully concede to Western models, and that were sympathetic to the strange persistence of still-mutating traditions. In his trilogy of novels—which includes the recently translated A Mind at Peace (1949), the just retranslated The Time Regulation Institute (1962), and the still untranslated Mahur beste, or “Mahur melody” (published posthumously in 1975)—he took full stylistic advantage of the resources of Ottoman Turkish, setting its store of Arabic and Persian words against the ruthlessly purified language sponsored by Kemalism. He also moved away from European models of plot development, producing a different kind of narrative time in the process.

In both A Mind at Peace and The Time Regulation Institute, Tanpınar’s protagonists are suspended in anguish and doubt over their inability to embrace the future. However, while A Mind at Peace exudes the kind of sweet unhappiness that is pervasive enough in Turkish literature to win its own untranslatable term (hüzün, a kind of end-of-empire melancholia), The Time Regulation Institute works in the key of comedy. Its narrator, Hayri Irdal, is an irrepressibly arch, ridiculous figure who recognizes his own maladaptation to modern life while remaining helpless to do anything about it. “I have never cared much for reading or writing; anyone who knows me can tell you that,” he announces at the beginning of a novel that exhibits—with sly diligence—a carelessness with the niceties of storytelling and plot. Irdal seemingly sets out to describe his participation in the creation of a bureaucracy whose goal is to ensure that all the watches and clocks of Turkey’s newly Westernized citizenry are set correctly. However, though this parody of modernization is promised in the novel’s first few chapters, the actual description of the Institute’s founding and its brief success doesn’t arrive until the book’s last quarter.

What ensues in the interim is Irdal’s haphazard account of his own useless life, an anti-bildungsroman in which he ticks off what in another narrative would constitute major events—deaths in the family, marriages, jobs—without the slightest sense of eventfulness, and without his ever being on the verge of maturing, or of genuine achievement. Irdal rarely acts in any purposeful way, finding himself coerced into decisions, or unexpectedly hired into jobs: His own first marriage, to a woman he hasn’t even courted, is ordered by a family associate. Anticlimax is built into every anecdote. The funeral for Irdal’s aunt, which one might expect to be a solemn affair, devolves into bizarre farce when his aunt wakes up in her coffin as it is being lowered into the ground and demands to be taken home:

With half her body jutting out of the casket, and shouting out instructions to the luckless souls charged with carrying her back to her villa in Etyemez (she had the gall to order them to take her all the way back home in the very manner they had brought her to the graveyard—no less would have been expected of her), she even managed to stop off at the first pastry shop they came across after entering the city, purchasing a savory bun, a poğaça, to relieve her hunger.

Irdal’s aunt is one of a host of vivid minor figures who emerge and disappear with the intensity of arresting figures glimpsed passing on the street. Together they constitute a hidden geography of the stubbornly insoluble premodern Turkey, lurking in and around the emergent world of progress and modernization—people who, in the narrator’s words, “stood forever with one foot on the threshold.” Among them are a charismatic and charlatan-like mystic in search of a cult (in Irdal’s description, “a ghostly shadow in the void, a mask on loan, a living lie”) and an aging aristocrat declining in a crumbling villa, symbol of the old empire. At the same time, others are seeking out conspicuously new modes of thinking. Irdal finds himself serially apprenticed to quacks and semi-frauds, from the master who teaches him the divine nature of clocks, to the psychiatrist and obsessive exponent of Freud and Nietzsche, to the imperious bank director who hires him as a personal assistant. Still others eke out a languorous existence in Irdal’s favorite coffeehouse, the denizens of which allegorize the intellectual life of the early republic:

What wasn’t discussed in the coffeehouse? History, the philosophy of Bergson, Aristotelian logic, Greek poetry, psychoanalysis, spiritualism, everyday gossip, lewd adventures, tales of terror and intrigue, the political events of the day—all gathered up into one swollen conversation that burst like a spring deluge, carrying away everything in its path, as surprising as it was senseless, one topic seething forward before the other was finished. But, then, of course, nothing was ever discussed in detail. In the coffeehouse a story would rise up as if from a long slumber, or like a faint memory of the ancient echo of a death.

If the novel has anything resembling a hero, it is Halit Ayarcı, the founder and director of the Time Regulation Institute, whose zeal for bureaucracy comes across as bizarrely infectious. He describes the Institute as “an absolute institution” and extols the virtues of living in “an age in which bureaucracy has reached its zenith.” Ayarcı’s unaccountable drive to modernize the time habits of the Turkish “masses” holds out the promise of uniting the country, but it ultimately leads to several misadventures. The most absurd of them occurs when Ayarcı commissions Irdal to write a biography of a fictitious clock-obsessed seventeenth-century Ottoman, in which he argues that the roots of contemporary bureaucracy lie in Turkish history. When Ahmet the Timely is exposed as a fraud, the Institute attempts to save its reputation by implementing a system of fines for those with lagging clocks. It works: As Time Regulation Teams spring up around the country to spread the gospel of keeping clocks wound, the scandal is forgotten. But the denouement finally comes when the public rejects Ayarcı’s attempt to get people to live in homes shaped like clocks. Bewildered that anyone could desire modernity in one aspect of their lives and deny it in another, Ayarcı cries, “How can that be? Can a human being think about something in two entirely different ways?” The experience prompts his decline, and with it, that of the Institute.

Despite Tanpınar’s hopes for a novel centered around psychologically rich characters, his own work consists almost entirely of minor figures sketched out in deft strokes. When Irdal, a supporting player in his own memoir, recedes into a crowd of associates who all get jobs in the curious, nationalizing institute of the book’s title, bureaucracy steps in to become the book’s protagonist. But rather than a failure, this turns into a source of strength. Instead of emphasizing the rational, hierarchical nature of the Institute, Tanpınar evokes the persistence of human activities within it: Irdal’s daughter, Zehra, spends her days knitting a sweater for Ayarcı; a music conductor is enlisted to choreograph the typing pool. The Institute comes to seem less like a truly modernizing force than yet another outlet for the frivolous pursuits that Irdal and his comrades had indulged in before. With such paradoxes, Tanpınar puts the Turkish national project into doubt, disclosing, beneath its exhilarating forward motion, an irresolute and disquieting emptiness. The Time Regulation Institute, by contrast, with its multiple registers, fugue-like plot, and granular attention to everyday life in a time of upheaval, proves to be the synthesis he had sought: a truly pathbreaking novel, at once nostalgic and modernist, contemporary and out of its time.

Nikil Saval is an editor at n+1. His book Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace is forthcoming from Doubleday.