Book Review: Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar's The Time Regulation Institute

      ‘But surely, reverend father,’ said Candide, ‘there is a great deal of evil in the world.’
      ‘And what if there is?’ said the dervish. ‘When His Highness sends a ship to Egypt, do you suppose he worries whether the ship’s mice are comfortable or not?’
      ‘What ought to be done, then?’ said Pangloss.
      ‘Keep your mouth shut!’ said the dervish.
—Voltaire, Candide: Or Optimism, 1758, translated by Theo Cuffe.

Readers approaching Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s 1962 The Time Regulation Institute for the first time should be prepared. Hailed as the greatest Turkish novel of the twentieth century, its mode is entirely different from Tanpinar’s earlier A Mind at Peace, a brooding roman fleuve set in Istanbul on the eve of World War II. It’s different again from the love-laden work of 2006 Nobel-winner Orhan Pamuk, whose novels My Name is Red (2000), Snow (2002), and The Museum of Innocence (2008) so recently catapulted Turkish fiction to the world stage. Nor, despite the animosity it exhibits towards modernization and the bureaucratic state, does Tanpinar’s last work especially read like speculative fiction à la Orwell or Atwood. Instead, The Time Regulation Institute, like the novels it best resembles, is a perfect freak, belonging to a bizarre coterie of comic magna opera—the eccentric pinnacles of extraordinary careers—almost all of which are closely married to the conventions of Menippean satire. So be prepared: this is Tanpinar’s Finnegans Wake, not his Dubliners; it’s his Idiot, not his Crime and Punishment; it’s his Tristram Shandy, and not any kind of Sentimental Journey to anywhere. It is, for those who know the history, 400 pages of fooling before the Lear of Atatürk’s Republic. 

Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar's
The Time Regulation Institute,
trans. from the Turkish by
Maureen Freely & Alexander Dawe
In his review for The New York Times, Martin Riker identifies the ways in which The Time Regulation Institute is recognizably Menippean, a form which since Bakhtin and later Frye has been an essential part of novelistic theory. It flourished in the Enlightenment with Swift, parts of Fielding, and Voltaire. Menippean satire depends on two things: first, a lovable ingenu, blessedly out-of-step with the absurdities that surround him (yet as a protagonist often malleable and weak-willed, blind to the personal defects that make his position unique, and allured by the prospect of belonging). And second, it depends on a rapidly rotating host of stock characters, drawn largely from Greek comedy—the senile old man, the braggart, the miser, the would-be philosopher, and so on—many of whom appear briefly, vanish, and reappear seemingly at random. Over the course of his travels the ingenu puts forth common-sense objections to what he perceives (correctly) as absurd behaviour, yet is so desirous of acceptance that he’s prepared to swallow justifications more absurd than the original behaviours themselves; and as he goes forth in search of truth, trying gamely to render all these distinct-yet-equally-preposterous positions consistent, it’s philosophy itself that puts its chin in the noose. At the end of the reader’s dizzying journey, she or he is made to see (even if the ingenu himself is not) that all systems of belief are equally self-serving—and, more importantly, that their proponents are little more than reality-saboteurs, prepared to ignore, sideline, or silence all the anomalies for which their systems fail to account.

In short, and as Frye argues, the Menippean satirist sees stupidity, vanity, cruelty, hypocrisy, selfishness, and most other human vices as symptoms of a larger intellectual disease. For Tanpinar, that disease was his country’s obsession with modernization. Beginning in the 1920s, when Tanpinar was a young man, the newly birthed Turkish Republic under Mustafa Kemal (better known as Atatürk) was subjected to a national development plan comparable to those of Russia, Japan, Iran under Reza Pahlavi, or China under Mao Tse-tung. In it the Muslim calendar, along with Arabic measures and numerals, were traded for the Gregorian calendar, European measures, and Roman numerals. In 1929 Atatürk also initiated a “Language Revolution,” in which the Latin alphabet was adopted, verb tenses simplified, and many Persian and Arabic words eliminated from use. The people were given three months to adjust.

The result of this program has been described as a bifurcated consciousness in the Turkish people, a subject which both Tanpinar and Pamuk explore, and which Pankaj Mishra describes handsomely in his introduction to The Time Regulation Institute. On one hand there was a general anxiety, felt by many non-Western nations just prior to and after WWI, about being hüzün (“doomed to arrive late, and spiritually destitute, to history”); on the other was trepidation that the traditions, language, art, and ethos of the Ottoman empire were becoming increasingly inaccessible to the public. The modernization program of Atatürk privileged the former concern, forcibly subordinating tradition to progress, and ignoring to a great degree how the people themselves thought, what they believed, whether or not they were psychologically prepared for these shifts, or the impact of the propaganda required to make such shifts tenable. (At one point in The Time Regulation Institute, our narrator Hayri Irdal is called Turkey’s “undiscovered Voltaire” in the newspaper, an assertion he finds both preposterous and distressing. “‘Do you think it’s easy for a civilization carrying so much history on its back to catch up in just fifty years?’” is the response of his mentor, Halit Ayarci: “‘A little exaggeration along the way is only natural.’”) Modernization was contagious, and its unapologetic spread—without the kind of cosmopolitan synthesis of past and present that Tanpinar himself believed necessary—is what manifests itself, in The Time Regulation Institute, as a type of bureaucratic brain-fever.

Insomuch as The Time Regulation Institute has a main plot conflict, it revolves around the process by which Hayri comes to accept the notion that history and truth—when paired with public ignorance thereof—can be manipulated at will. This is the crux of Tanipinar’s satire. Throughout his life our narrator is condemned as an idealist, a pessimist, a defeatist, a cynic, and old-fashioned: “‘You’re intelligent enough,’” his master Halit tells him when the Institute is in its infancy, “‘[but] you just don’t believe it. You lack faith.’” Shaking his head over Hayri’s condition—our protagonist yearns perpetually for absolute truth—Halit eventually seizes Hayri by the shoulder and shouts: “You’re going to change, Hayri Bey, change … above all else, the Time Regulation Institute needs you to believe.”

And he does. He changes. He believes. An upper-level administrator in a vast government make-work project devoted to the regulation of clocks, Hayri spends six months writing a fictitious biography-cum-institute-manifesto called The Life and Works of Ahmet the Timely. He’s well aware that this 17th-century watchmaker-philosophe, from whom the Institute supposedly drew its slogans and mandates, never existed. Indeed Hayri is troubled when Halit first demands the biography of him. Yet after publication, Hayri finds himself responding bitterly to accusations of fraud: “I’d come to see the world through Halit Ayarci’s eyes, so much so that I found any objection to my work intolerable. It was now, after all, a question of an author’s pride. And I had grown very fond of Ahmet the Timely. To doubt his existence at this late date would be far too troubling.”

The change is effected by combining convenience, self-interest, and Hayri’s longstanding Schopenhauerian attraction to those whose charisma and willpower are greater than his own, persons whom Halit is always urging him to imitate: “‘Look my dear friend,’” as he says of a Dutch scholar making a fool of himself on the dance floor at an Institute party: “‘study that man’s willpower! What effort, such a life force—it’s the very joy of living! What is knowledge in the face of such power?’”

This triumphing of will is a mock-lesson repeated over and over again. Hayri’s stepdaughter becomes a phenom pop singer, though she possesses neither training nor talent. The fictitious Ahmet the Timely is studied worldwide. Objections to the Institute’s mandate (not to mention its budget) are smoothed away by Halit’s masterful gladhanding. Even Hayri, awkward and unattractive, becomes a lovable public figure when his wife gives a false interview to the media. (When Hayri protests the interview is “‘nothing but lies from top to bottom,’” Halit immediately retorts: “‘That’s what you think. Everyone will love this!’” And they do.) The character of Dr. Ramiz, Hayri’s Freud-besotted analyst, is there to reinforce the notion that truth is merely a function of wish-fulfillment. Nor can truth hope to gain footing in the world of the Institute, whose entire mandate is devoted to focusing the public on a kind of eternal now, on a temporality that lacks context or connection to anything that goes before or after. As an organization the Institute’s success relies entirely on Halit’s strange power to distort “both his future and his past through the prism of the present.” By focussing on the present to the exclusion of all else, Halit teaches Hayri to govern by willpower—i.e., by convenient assertion, under the assumption that no assertion will be questioned given adequate fervor and conviction on the part of the speaker, and the ignorance of the public. In short, Halit prepares way for a propagandistic state.

This perniciously synchronic approach to time is paralleled throughout the novel by a psychoanalytic model of consciousness, propounded by Dr. Ramiz, which Hayri compares to a three-storey house with no stairs (a structure built in a moment of absentmindedness by a famous architect of Hayri’s acquaintance, and later used by Hayri as a model for the Institute’s new building—a monstrosity praised by the media for its “new architectural language,” the inversions of which match a “new era of Turkish syntax”).  The lesson? Past, present, and future cannot be joined any more than consciousness can be to the subconscious, Turkish syntax to its Arabic or Persian roots, or the higher floors of the Institute to those below them. Everything is forced into an isolated present: “I was living in a world without connection,” Hayri observes. “At the time I found the experience quite pleasant, but when I consider it in retrospect, I see the traces of a nightmare.” 

The vision Tanpinar gives us of modernized Turkey is that of a nation untethered from its past and instead guided by extreme and absurd relativism. Philosophy can’t make sense of these changes, as logical analysis—much like syntax—unfolds in the kind of time that Atatürk’s history-effacing regime negates. The only way that Hayri can find peace of mind is to do the work that presents itself to him, no matter how ludicrous his situation becomes. His decision to believe in the Institute is as sudden as that of Voltaire’s Candide, who, after years of enduring countless indignities in pursuit of the best of all possible worlds, renounces optimism in order to go and work in the garden. The journey of Hayri Irdal towards acceptance of his role is every bit as ludicrous as Candide’s syphilis-riddled, buttock-severing quest for his beloved Cunegonde. And in the end? Despite his outward zeal, despite his many assertions of the good done by the Institute for the people of Istanbul, the skepticism of Hayri’s memoir is palpable. The composition of it may be the only garden available in which work is still possible. “My first responsibility in writing these memoirs is to discredit all who have slandered or scorned the institute or its late founder,” Hayri declares early on; “my second, of no less importance, is to assert a small but very important truth.” Realistically, he does neither. Despite his general longwindedness it appears all Hayri has done is learn—to quote Voltaire’s dervish—how to keep his mouth shut.

Readers of Candide, which as a Menippean critique of progress mirrors The Time Regulation Institute in many ways, tend to forget that Voltaire locates his final garden in Istanbul. The farmer and the mystic who finally provide prospective to Candide are Ottomans. In some ways the tragedy of The Time Regulation Institute lies in its reversal of the Candide story: Istanbul is no longer a place whose pragmatism offers respite to the West’s self-serving mania for improvement, but instead is dependent on the West for a modicum of common sense. (It’s the Dutch scholar, dancing foolishly above, who along with a host of visiting Americans eventually debunks the Institute.)

Yet for all of its philosophical heavy-hitting and evident intellectual panache, the The Time Regulation Institute is also gut-jigglingly funny, lurking under the bridge between modernization and antiquity like some kind of ticklish troll. And though Hayri may not say so himself, Tanpinar’s lampoonings, exaggerations, and deflations manage to assert through indirection those “small but very important” truths that his narrator attempts to articulate: that “sincerity is not the work of one man alone,” that no nation can live suspended on the “threshold of infinite potential,” and that history can never be effaced.  “It is my past,” Hayri reflects, “and not my current position in life, that holds the key to my problems; I can neither escape from it nor entirely accept its mandate.” Nor should he. But somewhere between the two lies the condition of modernity, against which we continue to struggle—and with which, as Tanpinar does, we can sometimes play.


Tara Murphy is from Windsor, where she lives with a well-treated shih tzu, a maltreated banjo, and a bunch of plants. The plants know a lot about Milton.

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