by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar
(translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe)
Penguin Classics, 2013
Some Penguin Classics break new ground – actually, quite a few of them do, but none announces it more boldly than this translation, by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, of Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s Saatleri Ayarlama Enstitusu, The Time Regulation Institute, which is presented as the first Penguin “Black Tie Classic,” a strikingly innovative new paperback design Penguin is, rather typically (bless their bookish hearts) doing absolutely nothing to publicize.
The concept, again typically, is an old one: a Penguin Classic with a dust jacket – in this case a die-cut dust jacket arranged to enhance the cover illustration of the traditional black-spined Penguin paperback inside. This first cover is designed by Jim Tierney, whose work usually gives me conniptions (a quick note to him and all his graduating classmates: simply writing the words of the book’s title on your cover is supposed to be where your design STARTS, not where it stops) but is here quite good, perfectly telegraphing the pointed whimsicality of the book itself.
That book, originally published in 1962 (the year of its author’s death), comes here heralded with a glowing (if distracted – he spends half his allotted thirteen pages talking about a different book Tanpinar wrote) introduction by Pankaj Mishra, who echoes Penguin’s promotional assertion that The Time Regulation Institute is a true masterwork, perhaps the greatest 20t-century Turkish novel of them all. It takes its doleful inspiration from the Westernizing reforms Ataturk inflicted on the sleepy traditions of the Ottoman Empire, specifically the adoption of strict Western concepts of time-management that he forced on Turkey in 1926. That Tanpinar wistfully regretted this gung-ho drive for modernization I already knew from friends who’ve been praising his poetry to me for decades, but I confess, I was unprepared for the possibility that The Time Regulation Institute might actually be a great novel.
It is. It’s as plaintive as the best Russian fiction, but it’s infused throughout with the dreamy narrative surround-sound of the Arabian Nights. It must have been a nightmare to translate, as Freely and Dawe make congenially clear in their Preface:
No one can translate Turkish into English without a great deal of arranging and rearranging. Turkish is an agglutinative language. It routinely appends strings of eight, nine, or more suffixes to its root nouns. It has a single word for he, she, and it. It offers no independently standing definite or indefinite articles. It has a much more refined understanding of time than we do. Not only can it distinguish between hearsay and that which we have seen with our own eyes, but it can change a verb from active to passive with the addition of a two-letter, midword syllable that is all too easily missed by Anglophone eyes.
That “much more refined understanding of time” is ironic, given that The Time Regulation Institute‘s eponymous organization is rather comically dedicated to ham-handedly enforcing a concept of time on Istanbul that it doesn’t understand in the slightest. The Institute’s devotees might believe that “our watches and clocks that hold our secrets,” but the ordinary cafe-dwelling populace of the city is still thoroughly comfortable in the old ideas of time and efficiency, transported not by deadlines but by stories:
With our flannel vests stuck to our sweat-drenched backs, we rubbed this way and that against our chair to soothe our summer rashes, but once inside these stories we bathed in cool, moonlit waters, made love in dimly lit beach cabins, and locked horns like billy goats among the trees on windswept hilltops.
The novel is narrated by Hayri Irdal, who “may be the most humble and absurd man in the world” and who quickly takes on the hilariously, maddeningly companionable voice so prevalent in Tanpinar’s verse, the slightly pompous but likable Everyman who’s even more out of his depth than he realizes. Hayri Irdal has become a fervent advocate of the Institute’s byzantine surcharges and sub-schedules for regulating the city’s wayward time-keepers, and his views of time have become almost Kafka-esque in their all-encompassing rationalizations:
Just as a watch can become a man’s dearest friend, ticking with the pulse in his wrist, sharing the passions in his chest, and growing heated with the same fervor, until they are as one, so too may a clock sit on a table throughout the span of time we call a day and assume the essence of its owner, thinking and living as he does … Do not our old hats and shoes and clothes become more and more a part of us with the passage of time? A man who dons a new suit leaves his old self behind.
Hayri Irdal’s nemesis is Cemal Bay, the director of the Bank of Diverse Affairs, and his mentor at the Institute is the magnetic, prissy Halit Ayarci, who looks with scorn on the aforementioned cafe-dwelling atmosphere which had ruled Instanbul’s business culture as long as anybody could remember:
“Well, there’s work and there’s work. First of all, work requires a certain mentality and a certain conception of time. I’m astonished that you believe a genuine business life was even possible in our country before the establishment of our institute. Work exists only within a defined order. And you, with all your experience, and who lent such moral support to the institute at its inception, how could you consider this work?”
In lavishing this eye-catching new design on this first Black Tie Classic, Penguin is clearly hoping to get people reading and talking about Tanpinar and The Time Regulation Institute, perhaps get it added to Comparative Literature classes, certainly give it a wider distribution than the translation Ender Gurol did for Turko-Tatar Press in 2001. These are praiseworthy goals if so, but the main item of joy here is simply the book itself; it’ll give you a fantastic, fun, and thought-provoking reading experience regardless of what play the literati give it. We have indeed a great “new” classic. Wonderful!
Surely, given the elegance of the new design, the next Black Tie Classic should somehow be The Great Gatsby? Or maybe Brideshead Revisited? We can hope.
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