Columns

A Novel for All Times

Alberto Manguel

Dickens’s Jarndyce family, Melville’s Bartleby and Kafka’s K were anticipatory shadows of a great satiric novel by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar.

Ask any Turkish reader for the name of the most important Turkish novelist of modern times and very likely the answer will be Tanpinar. Now, thanks to the loving endeavours of two translators, Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, English readers too will be able to delight in the work of one of the most talented and ingenious writers of the twentieth century. Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar was born in 191 and died in 1962. He was a poet, a literary historian (he wrote a remarkable History of Nineteenth-Century Turkish Literature) and the author of incisive travelogues and memoirs, but his celebrity rests on his two novels: A Mind at Peace, a Proustian evocation of family life that Orhan Pamuk called “the greatest novel ever written about Istanbul,” and The Time Regulation Institute.

Literary fame is mysterious: how can it be that it has taken half a century for this extraordinary novel to reach a public outside the Turkish language? Perhaps certain books have to wait for the world of their readers to mirror the world their pages describe; certainly English-language readers who discover The Time Regulation Institute today will feel a shock of recognition. Largely thanks to electronic technology, our world has seen the bureaucratization of every aspect of our life. Bureaucracies, always absurd, have now lost all semblance of dignity; financial institutions, always loathed for their greed, have become openly dishonest; administrations, always suspect, have proven themselves to be intrusive and inefficient. Earlier writers had caught a glimpse of the oncoming clerical nightmare. Dickens’s Jarndyce family and their Chancery lawyers, Melville’s Bartleby and his Dead Letter Office, Kafka’s K and his hallucinatory trial, were merely anticipatory shadows. These forerunners are incarnated in Tanpinar’s hero, Hayri Irdal, a naïf who is more forthcoming than Bartleby and less anguished than K, but who is held captive in that same world (now grown more confident and spread over a wider canvas) of absurd rules and regulations. “I would go as far as to say that it is an age in which bureaucracy has reached its zenith, an age of real freedom,” declares the founder of the Institute, Halit Ayarci—without irony—to the accommodating Hayri.

The Time Regulation Institute is an organization that, according to Ayarci, defines its own function: to save time lost through issuing fines for malfunctioning timepieces, bringing order and meaning to a dissolute society—an idea judged “one of the most remarkable innovations in the history of accounting by our esteemed financiers.” The system of fines set up by the Institute specifies the collection of a certain sum for every clock or watch not synchronized with any other clock in view. “However,” Hayri explains, “the offender’s fine would be doubled if his timepiece differed from that of any other in the vicinity. Thus the fine might rise proportionately when there were several timepieces nearby. Since the perfect regulation of time is impossible—because of the personal freedom afforded by watches and clocks, something that I was naturally in no position at the time to explain—a single inspection, especially in one of the busier parts of town, made it possible to collect a not insignificant sum.” It should not astonish us that society embraces such a system and the Institute that restricts the free measuring of time. “This love of liberty,” Hayri says, approvingly quoting the words of the founder, “is nothing more than a kind of snobbism. If we really needed such a thing, or if we truly felt passionately about it, then wouldn’t we have grasped onto one of its many avatars and never let it out of our sight?” In these times of increasing restrictions on civil liberties everywhere—and, in particular, Prime Minister Erdogan’s Turkey—Tanpinar’s novel proves salutary reading.

As suits a story about the attempt to harness time, Hayri’s narrative or confession is full of magnificent digressions. There are the stories of the three timepieces that marked the stages of Hayri’s progress toward the Institute: the ill-fated grandfather clock bought by his father to furnish a never-to-be-completed mosque, a small clock that sang popular tunes and reminded Hayri of the brevity of life, and his father’s pocket watch with a compass whose needle showed the direction of Mecca, with a mechanism so abstruse that no clockmaker could mend it. There are the stories of Hayri’s relatives and acquaintances: Nuri Efendi, master craftsman, whose knowledge of clocks and the nature of time provides many of the aphorisms quoted at the Institute, such as “The Great Almighty made man in his image, and men made watches in theirs”; Seyit Lutfullah the Mad, “a mask on loan, a living lie,” who spent his days in a dilapidated medrese and once believed himself to be the Messiah; Hayri’s aunt, who holds the family’s purse strings and who climbed out of her coffin after she’d been mistakenly declared dead; Abdüsselam Bey, a Tunisian aristocrat who lived with countless relatives and servants in a sumptuous villa, only to be abandoned by all except a handful of old women whose names he has forgotten.

Penguin Classics has done English-speaking readers a great service by allowing us to discover in The Time Regulation Institute one of the great satirical masterpieces of modern times.

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Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel is the award-winning author of hundreds of works, most recently (in English) Fabulous Monsters, Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions, Curiosity and All Men Are Liars. He lives in New York. Read more of his work at manguel.com.


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