Going back in time

A new translation of Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar’s 1962 satirical novel about an agency that fines citizens for changing the country’s clocks to western time has renewed significance as Turkey waits for upcoming elections amid political uncertainty.

The Turkish author Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar. Courtesy Kalem
Powered by automated translation

At the moment, Turkey is caught in a net of countdowns. Crucial elections are to take place in 30 days. Votes for president and parliament are also on the way. Day by day, Turkey’s circus of surveillance revelations, leaked phone taps and corruption allegations grow more baroque and unhinged. Hour by hour, it seems, Turkey is moving towards some sort of reckoning. But no one is quite sure how many minutes we have till midnight, or whether the clocks will simply be set back an hour and the alarms set to snooze.

But an English edition of Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar's The Time Regulation Institute, translated by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe and published by Penguin Classics, is both a bit of rare good news, a pleasant diversion and entirely suited to the complexity of the day.

Turkey was once the heart of an empire and lately the country has enjoyed a certain chic as an emerging economy, but The Time Regulation Institute is a gem from Turkey as it was 50 years ago, when it was enduring the world's neglect, out at the edge of the 20th century.

And so its publication feels like a victory; it’s hard to pretend otherwise.

Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar (1901-1962) published The Time Regulation Institute in the last year of his life. Both novel and author are undeniable stars and deserve, one feels, to have finally reached the world stage, showcased in a spotlight as bright as Penguin Classics.

Now, such feelings would be understandable, but slightly misplaced. For starters, Tanpınar has already reached the world stage, albeit late. The German, French, Chinese, Estonian, Marathi and about 25 other language editions made it to market before Penguin. And when translations make up a fraction of English-language book sales (Maureen Freely, co-translator of The Time Regulation Institute, puts the figure between two and four per cent) one must not put too much stock in such a debut.

Also, for decades, Tanpınar was somewhat overlooked in Turkey. Though Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s most famous novelist and Nobel laureate, calls Tanpınar the “most remarkable author in modern Turkish literature”, Tanpınar was mostly popular among conservatives and had a correspondingly low standing with leftists, liberals and Turkey’s modernising elites.

But harsh divisions among social groups have softened here, and Tanpınar’s books now travel in wider circles. So, if we do celebrate Tanpınar reaching a mass English readership, it’s a party joining up with a larger one already underway; Tanpınar is finding a wider readership everywhere, and, perhaps most significantly, at home.

This English edition from Penguin is well done. With an introduction by the novelist Pankaj Mishra, translation notes, a Turkish history timeline, a short appendix and a few hundred endnotes, readers unfamiliar with Turkey will feel well looked after.

All that’s left is to add this footnote of my own: the back cover of the book wrongly says it is the “first-ever English translation”. The US Library of Congress lists a 2001 translation by Ender Gürol, published in Madison, Wisconsin by Turko-Tatar Press. Andrea Lam, publicist for Penguin books, clarified in an email that the Penguin edition is the first “authorised” English translation. A telephone call to the number on the Turko-Tatar Press webpage, last updated in 2007, was not answered.

In the opening pages of The Time Regulation Institute, 60-year-old Hayri Irdal tells us that the death of his friend and benefactor, the founder of the eponymous Time Regulation Institute, has prompted him to write his own memoirs. Hayri is putting pen to paper, he declares, to defend the legacy of his friend and the honour of the institute, and to set down for posterity the details of his own fundamental connection to the time regulation project.

But what is meant to be eulogy and solemn autobiography blooms forth into an absurd exposé of the foibles of a richly bizarre and self-incriminating cast of characters.

The Time Regulation Institute at the centre of the story is a semiofficial organisation set up to coordinate every clock and watch in the country, a public good provided to save each and every useful millisecond from slipping through good citizens’ fingers. It’s an impossible task. But that’s a lucky thing, Hayri innocently explains – as only the fines levied like traffic tickets on those unsuspecting citizens wearing unwound watches kept the institute’s budget funded. It is worthy work. Hayri declares the institute one of the greatest, most innovative, important and beneficial organisations of the era – backing his claim, again quite innocently, by noting how many of his relatives he was able to hire.

But Hayri is neither cynic nor simpleton. He is naive, wise, convoluted, stark, penetrating, and oblivious all at once. The reader enjoys constant, whispering doubt whether Hayri is actually sane. That the result is as compelling as a lucid dream is a credit to co-translators Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe.

“Hayri is, on the one hand, this bumbling fool, but also quite astute and intellectual, even erudite. I think it was Maureen who came up with this wonderful description that he was some kind of fumbling faux erudit,” Dawe told me last month in an Istanbul café.

Nailing down that distinct voice was the first challenge Freely and Dawe set themselves. “We wanted to make it crackle,” Dawe said. And in draft after draft of the novel’s very first pages, Dawe explained, they worked to crystallise a shared image of the narrator, picking out the melody, register, rhythm and pacing with which to render an English-speaking Hayri.

“A voice has a range. It can do various things. And that’s something that’s set-up in the very first sentence,” Freely said in a Skype interview from her home in Bath in the United Kingdom.

And Hayri's voice makes The Time Regulation Institute a very funny novel, both in design and line by line. Hayri is, for example, the kind of bureaucrat who thinks decreasing fines for repeat offenders of the institute's time regulations is good policy – after all, what kind of enterprise doesn't give discounts to regular customers? He credits his success in eking out a college degree to truancy – the less teachers saw of him, he figures, the less they noticed his flaws. He joyfully tells us of witnessing his future son-in-law get beat-up in a coffeehouse brawl: "However hard I tried, I could not put the great thrashing out of my mind: the more I went over it, the more I recalled. There was a particular snort every time his nose suffered a blow that I am quite sure I will treasure for the rest of my life. Only a nose as vile as his could have performed so well." Freely said: "I think Tanpınar loved Hayri and loved him more with every sentence." Known for the satire in her own novels, and as one might expect for a book about clocks, Freely was sure that only keen timing could unlock the comedy of Tanpınar's novel. "If either of us had been translating it alone, it's such a big enterprise just to get it into English, it would have been much harder to get it to the stage where we were having fun with it."

After translating five books by Orhan Pamuk, and weathering the blizzard of job offers that came with such acclaim, Freely wanted to ease back from the intensity of Turkish cultural politics, and was eager to return to her own novels, she said.

But then the offer to translate Tanpınar came along. “It was a really hard thing to say no to.” Still, she thought she hadn’t the time to do a proper job. But during a serendipitous meeting with Dawe, already at work on Tanpınar’s short stories, at a reception in Istanbul, they wondered whether together they might manage.

Freely and Dawe came to Turkey in similar ways. Both are children of educators from the United States that worked in Istanbul. Freely arrived in 1960 at the age of eight and stayed until she left for Radcliffe College 10 years later. She settled in the UK, but is always visiting Istanbul, where her parents still live. Dawe arrived in 1986, at the age of 11. He stayed for two years, then returned in 1998, living in Istanbul since, translating, teaching, and acting in Turkish-language TV and film.

Their translation does seem remarkable. Only rarely does an awkward word or phrase break the spellbinding prose. For example, when revolted, one character would “hock a ball of phlegm”. Now, to my ear at least, “hocking” is spitting with a drawl, and in this context sounded like a whirling dervish saying “Howdy”. There’s a “his way or the highway” somewhere in the text, and when Hayri loses his job he is “made redundant”. There are perhaps five or six other instances of out-of-tune vernacular. That such a small criticism is my biggest complaint highlights, in my own mind at least, the overwhelming quality of the work; everything else comes through pitch-perfect and stumble-free.

The back cover of this new edition tells us The Time Regulation Institute is a "brilliant allegory of the collision of tradition and modernity, of East and West". This is duly supported by Orhan Pamuk's quote declaring the book "an allegorical masterpiece, which makes Turkey's attempts to westernise and its delayed modernity understandable in all its human ramifications".

These are, without doubt, deep themes of this society’s history. Since the great Ottoman reforms known as the Tanzimat began in 1839, Turkey has been trying to bolster itself with western ways. There is a traceable line, over the course of a century, of imperial and republican attempts – punctuated with certain set-backs and standstills – to modernise the country by diktat, reaching a radical culmination in the reforms of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, which he decreed in the years following the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. These reforms surpassed anything Ottoman statesmen had attempted, changing the alphabet, people’s dress, social relations and suppressing religion; Atatürk fundamentally re-engineered Turkish state and society. The ideological basis of Atatürk’s policies, or what we today call Kemalism, dominated Turkish political culture for decades.

Besim Dellaloglu is the author of A Tanpınar Fetishism, published last year in Istanbul. He also teaches at Turkey's Sakarya University.

“I think Tanpınar has been generally misunderstood in Turkey at least up until the 1990s,” Dellaloglu said. With Tanpınar’s pronounced interest in tradition, architecture and old Istanbul, his books were for decades available only from the “conservative” catalogue of Dergâh Publications. Dellaloglu’s leftist friends at university in the 1980s thought it best that he leave Tanpınar’s books on the shelf. In his book, Dellaloglu quotes a Turkish intellectual describing growing up in a hardcore Kemalist home and reading Tanpınar’s books as if they were smuggled contraband written by a foreigner.

“The originality of Tanpınar is that he wrote about this gap between ‘modernity’ and ‘modernisation’, and that ‘modernisation’ doesn’t necessarily lead to ‘modernity’,” Dellaloglu told me.

Whereas “modernity” was home-grown in France, Germany and elsewhere in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, the “modernisation” policies adopted by Ottoman and Turkish statesmen were imported and imposed. “We got the institutions, but lost the experience of their organic development,” Dellaloglu said.

“I think Hayri was Tanpınar’s great and final revenge against all the idiocies of bureaucracy and of the new republic,” Freely told me. “Hayri was trying to become a ‘New Turk’, but he just couldn’t. Not even for one sentence.”

This, to me, is the essence of Tanpinar’s criticism of the modern, Kemalist project: that modernism remained an abstraction for many of those subjected to it; an abstraction to which they just couldn’t manage to conform.

In The Time Regulation Institute, Hayri's psychoanalyst prescribes him dreams, and then berates him when he can't have the dreams that befit his illness. After a failed attempt at dreaming properly, the doctor throws his hands up in exasperation and cries, "You have ruined all my efforts. You were to be reborn, but you have remained exactly the same."

And there is an unfortunate irony here. It was the Kemalist view of the past, which puts so much emphasis on republican Turkey’s break with its imperial history, that cast Tanpınar as passé for so many years. And yet many interpretations of Tanpınar today actually reinforce this Kemalist view of the founding of the Turkish Republic as a fundamental rift with the past by overplaying the radical novelty and disregarding the continuities that Tanpınar knew hadn’t disappeared.

"For me the claim that Tanpınar is a 'conservative' is one of the most important fallacies created by the modernisation mentality," Dellaloglu said. "But look at this, this is incredible," he continued, flipping to the publication history inside the first page of the Turkish original of The Time Regulation Institute. First published in 1961, a second printing wasn't run until 1987. Between 1987 and 2000, it was printed six times. And since 2002 it has been printed 14 times, with three printing runs in 2013 alone.

Since at least the 1980s, Turkey has been developing its own “modernity” and surpassing “modernisation”. Conversations about history and identity, once governed by what anthropologists might call “social silences”, are no longer taboo – the danger in simply wanting to talk about Kurdish rights, Alevis, headscarves, the Armenian genocide, non-Muslims, has greatly subsided. The conversation can still be dangerous, certainly contentious, but the topics themselves no longer avoided or suppressed.

It is an important topic for today. In 2013, Turkey undoubtedly saw a polarization in society take back some of the gains of the last decade. We are also in a countdown to Newroz, the Kurdish New Year on 21 March, and the Armenian genocide commemoration day on 24 April. In recent years, these days have been occasion for hope about the future of Turkey. In today’s climate, it is easy to be pessimistic about this year’s commemorations.

But in the final analysis, how does The Time Regulation Institute stand-up as an allegory? Presumably best in the Turkish original, for only there would a reader be able to find and understand all of Tanpinar's intended nuances. But there's much to be enjoyed here by the wider, English-speaking world in this latest translation. After all, as Maureen Freely said. "We're all surrounded by bureaucracies that do nothing."

Readers unfamiliar with Turkey may even enjoy their first read through more than I did. As it was, I was distracted by my constant scanning for parts of the allegory, anxious not to overlook the key that would unlock “The Meaning Of Turkey”. What did Hayri’s first and second wives correspond to? Was the Great Man in the restaurant Ataturk?

“Regulating time” certainly has had a place in Turkey’s modernisation history and is a ripe target. After all, Tanpınar was born in 1319, by the Hijri calendar, and died in 1962, by the Gregorian calendar. But it would be “Tanpınarian” of us to recall that many of Turkey’s most famous clock towers were built during the reign of late sultans, in particular, Abdülhamid II.

And having read Freely and Dawe’s translators’ note to The Time Regulation Institute, one gets the sense that Tanpınar was out to defend something just as ephemeral and abstract, but even more precious to him than time itself. Because whatever Atatürk did to Turkish clocks, it was nothing compared to what he did to the Turkish language.

And though Tanpınar did speak out against the language reforms (while supporting the rest of the republican project), he knew he had to veil his sharpest criticisms.

“I think this is a perfect Turkish allegorical shaggy dog – with a point.” Freely said. “It can suggest so many different things … It’s a cat and mouse kind of allegory. Tanpınar is a tease. But you have to be a tease in a place where you can go to jail for your words.”

Caleb Lauer is a Canadian journalist working in Istanbul.