I’ve been delighting in
- Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, The Time Regulation Institute (1961; English translation by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, 2013).
A fine satire on the alienation of modern bureaucracy, the novel was published in full after being serialised from 1954.
Born in adversity, the narrator Hayri İrdal becomes apprentice to the wise old clock repairer Nuri Efendi, and spends time (sic) performing in improvisatory theatre groups (“I was living in a world of lies and illusion, and that was all I wanted”). Returning to Istanbul after army service in World War One (“four years spent in vain”), he is indolent and indifferent to everything around him. The Viennese-trained psychoanalyst Dr Ramiz, himself “the incarnation of discontent”, relishes his case, but expects more from him:
“I want you to have dreams that are more in line with your illness. Do you understand me? Use everything in your power to have the right kind of dreams.” […] All this contributed to my moving that much closer to bona fide insanity.
Dr Ramiz introduces Hayri İrdal to a coffeehouse, where he delights in telling stories with the regulars, as life was suspended.
New ideas were at first humoured out of courtesy and a slight curiosity, but they would remain unaddressed until the crowd’s ever-vigilant imagination had recast them as pleasantries, thus assimilating them to their own idiom. This is what happened to any attempt at serious conversation.
His family life is unfulfilling:
I detested the life I was living but lacked the strength to start another. I had severed all ties. I had no bonds with the world save for the compassion I felt for my children. I had no choice but to endure it all—or at least tolerate the world around me. The moment I set foot outside I was a prisoner of my wandering and endlessly colluding mind, which led me off to exotic worlds whose enticements beckoned, only to stay beyond my reach.
While he finds further distraction from his ennui in the Spiritualist Society, the model of the ascetic dervishes can’t help him solve problems stemming from his worldly concerns. At last he meets his mentor Halit Ayarci, with whom, amidst much partying, he hatches the concept of the Time Regulation Institute, a nepotistic institution that defines its own function.
At last Hayri İrdal has a “surging sense of purpose”. He spends his early months at the Institute devising platitudinous slogans and exchanging gossip. As Hayit Ayarci impresses his political contacts with arcane colour-coded charts, the Institute goes into full swing, recruiting suitably talentless employees from their relatives and drinking buddies.
Although Hayri İrdal has always preferred a life in which “idleness, or wasting time, is a source of happiness” (in Pankaj Mishra’s words), they devise a system of fines for those whose timepieces are not synchronised with any other clock in view.
When an inspector notified a citizen of his fine, the offender would initially express surprise, but upon apprehending the form logic behind the system, a smile would spread across his face until, at last understanding this was a serious matter, he would succumb to uproarious laughter.
He refines the system by offering a discount to repeat offenders. The staff expands as they set up Regulation Stations, “small roadside posts where ladies and gentlemen could stop in to adjust their timepieces”.
Gradually he eases into his new role:
I began to use terms like “modification”, “coordination”, “work structure”, “mind-set shift”, “metathought”, and “scientific mentality”…
He muses on freedom:
Today we use the word only in its political sense, and how unfortunate for us. […] The political pursuit of freedom can lead to its eradication on a grand scale—or rather it opens the door to countless curtailments. […] I have been made to understand that in our lifetime freedom has been kind enough to visit our country seven or eight times. Yes, seven or eight times, and no-one ever bothered to say when it left; but whenever it came back again, we would leap out of our seats in joy and pour into the streets to blow our horns and beat our drums.
Pondering the ever-growing roster of employees, Hayri İrdal suggests selecting those with experience, “people who have more or less worked for a certain period of time in a particular field”. Halit Ayarci rebuffs this idea:
“To be experienced means to be run down, frozen at some fixed point, and stuck with stagnant ideas. Such people are of no use to us.”
In a satire on Atatürk’s invention of tradition, after Hayri İrdal gives Halit Ayarci an account of the wonders of clock-making, though “never one for reading or writing”, he is persuaded to compose an entirely spurious biography of a 17th-century clockmaker, The life and works of Ahmet the Timely. His patron “was not at all mistaken when he divined the need for the illustrious Ahmet Zamani to have existed”, nor was he wrong when he assigned him to the reign of Mehmed IV.
Although a handful of armchair academics dismiss the work as a complete fabrication, it becomes a huge international success. Still, the enthusiasm of amiable Dutch scholar Van Humbert poses problems.
Finding the tomb of a man who never existed in mortal form is more difficult than you might imagine, as is surviving vigorous debate with a foreign scholar, even with the aid of an interpreter.
As Hayri İrdal becomes a celebrity, his wife joins in the deception with alacrity, embroidering a fantasy of their happy life together, to Hayit Ayarci’s delight:
To him, my continuing doubts about the existence of Ahmet the Timely and my rejection of my wife’s picture of me as a banjo-playing equestrian were all symptoms of the same malady.
“Your wife has presented you as the ideal modern man and still you doubt and deny it all!”
In a satire on the gullibility of the masses, Hayit Ayarci even concocts a successful singing career for our narrator’s tone-deaf sister-in-law:
You say she’s ugly, so from a contemporary point of view she’s sympathetic. You say her voice is wretched, which means it is emotive and conducive to certain styles. You say she has no talent—well then, without a doubt she is an original.
As the Institute extends its global reach, our hero designs a surreal clock-themed building in a satire on modernist architecture:
People moving up and down either wrought-copper staircase would be visible, as they would be encased in glass. I now saw I could arrange them diagonally across the centre of the hall to disrupt the traditional four leaf clover formation. Of course all the pillars—each one a little higher than the next—would be connected by little bridges so as to allow those moving up and down them to cross.
After a fractious final gathering, the Institute is consigned to continuous liquidation.
* * *
Apart from evoking Kafka and Borges, I was reminded of the stories of Švejk and his creator Hašek (whose Party of Moderate and Peaceful Progress within the Limits of the Law was designed partly to bolster the finances of the pub where the election meetings were held), as well as Flann O’Brien, with his annotations on the ouevre of de Selby, and his All-Purpose Speech.
The 2013 translation is adorned by an excellent Introduction by Pankaj Mishra (cf. his review). Putting the novel in global context, he reflects on Atatürk’s cultural revolution and the developing world’s “feckless programme of Westernisation” in the pursuit of secular and rational ideals, where “the onwards-and-upwards narrative of progress, dictated by the state and embraced by a gullible people, has contaminated everything.” Adducing Russia, Japan, Iran, China, and India, Mishra notes a “tragic mismatch between the intentions of these hasty modernizers and the long historical experience of the societies they wanted to remake in the image of the modern West”. As in his 1939 novel A mind at peace, Tanpinar suggests the deracine sense of arriving late, spiritually destitute, bewildered by the “tawdry illusions of modernity”. Hayri İrdal—“one of those superfluous semimodern men familiar to us from Russian literature: more acted upon than active, simmering with inarticulate resentments and regrets”—“has a keen appreciation of the absurdities of the self-perpetuating and self‑justifying bureaucratic state that embodies progress and enlightenment in Turkey”.
Gosh—is that the time?