Why You Should read Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar
Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar wrote the book Orhan Pamuk described as “the greatest novel ever written about Istanbul.” Yeah, how’s that for a recommendation? It kind of makes the rest of this article irrelevant. If you like Pamuk, or have any interest in Turkey, you will like this.
Tanpınar could be reasonably described as the grandfather of Modern Turkish Literature. However, outside of Turkey he’s relatively unknown. Certainly not on the same level as Orhan Pamuk or Elif Şafak, though both certainly owe him a debt. Part of the reason is the lack of translated versions of his work, the first full translation of Time Regulation Institute (Saatleri Ayarlama Enstitüsü) didn't come out in English until 2001 and A Mind at Peace (Huzur) didn't get a translation until 2008. The large majority of his work is still without a translation of any kind. That's quite a disappointing fate for a writer that is held in such high regard amongst modern Turkish readers, writers and poets, on both the political left and right. But things are changing and I’m hopping that more work of his works will be coming out in English soon.
Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Nermin Mollaoğlu of Kalem Agency, the company largely responsible for the arrival of Tanpınar on the world stage (you can read our full interview here). After the interview, we talked about the two Tanpınar books that are available in English: Time Regulation Institute (Saatleri Ayarlama Enstitüsü) and A Mind at Peace (Huzur). During our conversation she told me a little anecdote to help you decide which Tanpınar book to read first. Paraphrasing, she told me “before you read Tanpınar you should ask yourself, if you have a day, which would you prefer to do? Go to the funfair or take a walk in the rain?” Words to live by.
A Mind at Peace (Huzur): A walk in the Rain.
This is the one that Pamuk described as “the greatest novel about Istanbul.”
The story follows Mümtaz, a wealthy young man of Istanbul as he deals with the life-threatening sickness of his cousin and mentor Ìhsan. At the same time as this, he is trying to hold together a complex love affair with the divorced Nuran. All set to a backdrop of the looming presence of World War II.
The prose in this novel is lovely. Tanpınar’s skills as a poet run throughout with long romantic passages and loving descriptions of Istanbul. He does an amazing job of capturing a version of a city that has long since disappeared. If you have any knowledge of Istanbul or a passion to learn more about the city that alone should recommend this book to you. The love story is compelling and might well challenge a western reader’s perception about love and sexuality in the Turkish world. Also, I personally found the political discussions between the characters about the brewing Second World War and the position the newly formed Turkish Republic should take fascinating. It’s an area of Turkish history that I knew nothing about and feel I now have a better understanding of.
All that said there are some criticisms that can be made. Turkish music is an important theme and knowing nothing about it, I found it quite hard to follow, but that's just me. My main problem with it is that the pacing does drag in some places, A Mind at Peace was originally serialised and, as with other old serials, it can drag a bit slow when read as one novel. Also, the character Mümtaz spends quite a lot of time feeling sorry for himself. I don't know, maybe I’m just not the type for walks in the rain.
Time Regulation Institute (Saatleri Ayarlama Enstitüsü): A day at the funfair.
Read the fictional memoir of Hayri İrdal, assistant director of the now closed, scandal-ridden and also fictional Time Regulation Institute. A company (or is it part of the government, or an NGO?) designed to ensure that all clocks in Turkey are telling the same time, a vital mission that he and his mentor Halit Ayarcı are convinced will save lives, sort of.
The memoir covers most of Hayri’s life from his humble beginnings, spending time in Nuri Efendi’s watchmakers shop, his slide into poverty and rise as the right hand man of the enigmatic Halit. Full of ups and downs, romances, deaths and resurrections (sort of). It has a bizarre and fantastic supporting cast of aunts, psychologists, and coffee house regulars. It is set in that interesting period right at end of the Ottoman Empire and during the early years of The Republic of Turkey. Tanpınar uses his Institution as a way of satirizing the giant changes that were going on in Turkey.
Considering that this book was written in the 1950 about a culture that I am only starting to understand it’s funny, very funny. Just like with A Mind at Peace, the prose is fantastic. He turns phrases that will make you smile in the moment and then stick with you long after you've put the book down.
If I had to make a it would be that in the serialisation causes it to drag in some places, much in the same was as A Mind At Peace.
Over all, Time Regulation Institute was the book I enjoyed the most of the two, it’s anarchic and illogical. I really enjoyed my time at the funfair.