The Great Turkish Novel?


There’s the story of the foreign dignitary visiting the headquarters of one of the government agencies in Washington, D.C., who asks, “How many people work here?”  And the answer: “About fifty percent.”  Then there are accounts of summer interns working in Washington who are told not to work too hard.  They’re making the regular employees look badly.  Hundreds of other anecdotes of people who are part of huge government bureaucracies who have little or nothing to do except perpetuate the system are ubiquitous.  I mention these examples in spite of the fact that as someone who has lived in Washington for half a century, I have known plenty of people working for the government who put in long hours daily, evenings and sometimes weekends.  But the accounts of bureaucracies where people have little to do persist; the United States has no monopoly on these stories.

Which takes us to Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s masterpiece, The Time Regulation Institute, first published in Turkish fifty years ago and finally available in a glorious English translation by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe.  Credit should also go to Penguin Classics for issuing this title, since it’s obvious that readers of all books are fast declining, let alone the classics.  I’m in no position to judge because my knowledge of Turkish novels is limited, but I accept the evaluation of Turks who call Tanpinar’s story “the Great Turkish Novel,” even if the main character, Hayri Irdal, persists in telling us that he is writing a memoir.

Born to modest origins, Hayri tells us that everything changed in his life the day he was circumcised, at age ten.  Not because of the event itself but because of the gift of a timepiece, a watch.  He’d never had to think about time before that moment.  The freedom he knew as a child was lost to the awareness of time’s passing: “the little timepiece nullified my little world, and then it claimed its rightful place, forcing me to abandon my earlier loves.”  For Turkey itself, before and after World War I (the time frame for much of Tanpinar’s novel), Hayri’s new watch not only symbolizes Western time but Western influence, as Ataturk revolutionized his culture and pushed it into modernity.  In many ways this is little different than traditional peoples around the world no longer orienting themselves by the hours of daylight and darkness, but suddenly becoming much more aware of the passing of time.  (The much more recent iteration of this change is what has happened to billions of people in non-Western countries who have acquired cell phones, often before they have access to potable water and electricity.)

Not much later after he’s given the watch, Hayri is apprenticed to a clockmaker.  That doesn’t last long but it leads to Hayri’s life-long interest in tinkering with clocks.  Other jobs, as he grows a little older, include acting and working for the country’s Post and Telegraphy, followed by a marriage when he is still young and a joke that he makes about a huge diamond that leads others to believe that he is enormously wealthy.  Which he isn’t, but since he owes money to many other people, the joke causes immediate problems: lawsuits and incarceration in a hospital/mental institution.

One of the highlights of this brilliantly comic narrative is the encounter Hayri has with Dr. Ramiz, after he is institutionalized.  Ramiz has recently left Germany, where he’s studied psychoanalysis (guess who trained him?), but when he gets to Istanbul he has no patients and no one knows what psychoanalysis is.  The doctor latches onto Hayri and after hours and hours to talking to the young man determines that he suffers from a father complex—in large part because his father was jealous of his own father’s grandfather clock which dominated the living quarters of his house.  That clock was mentioned much earlier in the story as having a personality of its own: “It followed a time all its own, far removed from human affairs.  On occasion it would release an unexpected sequence of deep chimes, after which its pendulum would swing silently for months on end.  My mother looked kindly on the clock’s elderly disposition.  To her mind it was either a prophet or a being blessed with mystical powers.  [M]y mother referred to it as the Blessed One.  [M]y father…called the clock the Calamity.”

Dr. Ramiz determines that Hayri needs several years of psychoanalysis, in order to cure him of his
The_Time_Regulation_Instituteexaggerations.  The eccentric doctor has his own problems.  “Throughout his musings he never stopped opening and closing his briefcase.  He would take out his cigarettes and then promptly lock them up.  A little later he would do the same with his English pocketknife: he would open the briefcase all over again, rummage through it, pull out the knife, and begin cleaning under his fingernails.  Later it was the cologne, which of course needed to be extracted from the briefcase before he could douse his hands with its lemony vapors.”  All the while listening to Haryi drone on and on.  Dr. Ramiz is particularly disturbed when he learns that Haryi does not remember his dreams.  “I want you to have dreams that are more in line with your illness,” i.e., your father complex.  When no dreams occur, the frustrated man states that there is nothing he can do but instigate his own discovery of the “directed dream,” “strictly guided and controlled.”  So much for psychoanalysis.  Haryi is eventually released from the hospital, after Dr. Ramiz more or less gives up with his patient. The ex-patient observes, “Some people spend their lives making good use of time, but in my life it has always stuck a foot out in front of me.  I have tripped over time.”

Haryi’s next trip-up quickly occurs from an accidental meeting with a rich Turk, Halit Ayarci, who will shortly instigate the Time Regulation Institute.  What solidifies the relationship between the two is, again, a timepiece.  Ayarci has an elegant pocket watch, an heirloom that will not work.  No one has been able to repair it.  Not so our hero, who quickly assesses the problem with the watch and, once it is running again, Ayarci is so impressed with his work that he offers Haryi a major position in his new institute.  Thus becomes the focus of the second half of the novel, set up with dozens of slogans about time: “Shared time is shared work, “ “A true man is conscious of time,” “The path to well-being springs from a sound understanding of time,” and so on.

More specifically, the TRI will synchronize all public clocks, but the problem for Haryi—in his own words—is “I had a job but no work.”  Even as the Institute grows, hiring many other workers, when Haryi states, “We don’t seem to be engaged in meaningful activity,” Ayarci retorts that every important
bureaucracy needs critics like Haryi to question the value of what they are doing.  And as Haryi continues his questioning, he becomes more and more famous—as does the Institute.  Even Dr. Ramiz regards Haryi’s denial of the TRI’s credibility as a validation of the conclusions of his analysis.

I can’t reveal the delicious observations made by both Haryi, his mentors Halit Ayarci, and even Dr. Ramiz, other than to state that the satire of man’s obsession with time (for no value at all, as quickly becomes apparent) and government bureaucracies in general continues its comic gavotte through time and space.  Years pass; other countries set up similar institutes.  The TRI procreates an entire dynasty of related organizations: Timely Banks, the Institute of Time Trust, even Clock Houses.  One observation will suffice: “We had founded the institute in order to generate employment for ourselves.”

Kudos for Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar.  As you read The Time Regulation Institute, you may have the impression that you are reading a nineteenth-century novel—often slow of pace, with dozens of characters, surprising sub-plots and revelations—in short, all the good stuff of those classic French, German, English and Russian classics.  So now we can add a Turkish novel to the list.  What more can be said?  Better that than never?

Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar: The Time Regulation Institute

Trans. by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe

Penguin, 401 pp., $18.00

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.


Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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