After learning that this book is an absurdist satire with its sights set on the modernization of Turkey, I was nervous it would be unreadable for me. After all, I know very little about Kemal Atatürk and the modernization of Turkey, and what I do know has been told to me by others who, like me, were far removed. I cannot claim that I caught all that was going on in The Time Regulation Institute (Saatleri Ayarlama Enstitüsü, 1962; tr. from the Turkish by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, 2013) — of course I didn’t — but I can say, with excitement, that I was captivated from page one and that, despite feeling unmoored for lengthy passages (the novel is absurd and is not afraid to send us far out there), by the end I was thrilled to have finished what must be one of the finest new translations of the year. And it’s the first week in January.
There are a few of reasons that I think this book is so accessible, even to those who are unfamiliar with all that Tanpinar is criticizing. First, if we zoom out, what Tanpinar is satirizing is that common subject of satire: bureaucracy. Second, zooming back in, this edition from Penguin Classics (more on it below) contains a number of helpful extras: an introduction by Pankaj Mishra that explains the history and puts Tanpinar in context, a note on the translation that further explains what Tanpinar is doing with language, a chronology of Turkish history, and a half dozen pages of notes.
Third, and best of all, the narrator, Hayri Irdal, has an understated and sophisticated tone that keeps us grounded, even as he undercuts almost everything he says, as he tells us his one ridiculous account of his troubles after another.
When the book begins, Irdal tells us he’s going to write his memoirs. His “benefactor and beloved friend,” Halit Ayarci, has just died in an automobile accident, and it seems a good time to take an accounting of his life, even though he hates such accountings of life. He’ll do it here, though, because Ayarci is much more than Irdal’s benefactor. Not only does he save Irdal time and time again, he set Irdal on the pathway to success and is also the inspiration and energy behind the Time Regulation Institute, “perhaps the greatest and most important organization of this century.”
In a nutshell, the Time Regulation Institute is established to synchronize all of the clocks and time pieces in Turkey and is empowered to fine anyone whose timepiece does not keep correct time. It’s meant to call to mind the modernization of Turkey under the rule of Atatürk — modernization that usually meant adopting western ideas and discarding traditions, including the beautiful (or so I’m led to believe) language. But that lauded — if ill-fated — institution isn’t established until we’ve been with these characters, getting them to the point where such an institution feels logical (almost), for some 200 pages.
And they are delightful pages. Irdal steps back and begins recounting his youthful fascination with a grandfather clock, his loss of freedom when he receives his first watch, and his apprenticeship with a clock maker. Even before that, Irdal briefly introduces a hoax that made him famous: his bestselling, acclaimed account on the life of Sheikh Ahmet Zamani Efendi, a revered seventeenth-century clock maker . . . who never existed. But that’s a minor detail. The book’s title: The Life and Works of Ahmet the Timely.
My book was translated into several languages, and its critical reception abroad was as solemn and profound as it had been at home: this alone should prove that our dear friend Halit Ayarci — may he rest in peace — was not at all mistaken when he divined our need for the illustrious Ahmet Zamani to have existed, nor was he wrong when he assigned him to the century in question. The original idea was not my own, but when I think back on this book that bears my name, when I recall its translation into eighteen languages, and the reviews it received in foreign newspapers, and the great scholar Van Humbert, who traveled all the way from Holland to meet with me and visit the tomb of Ahmet Zamani, I know I am remembering the most important events of my life.
It’s wonderful, especially when Irdal takes the Dutch scholar Van Humbert out to search from the tomb of this made-up mant and they end up finding the tomb someone conveniently named Ahmet Zamani. Now that unremarkable person’s tomb has been set up as a shrine of sorts, though Van Humbert was a bit of a pain throughout that adventure.
Yes, it’s a lot of fun, but it’s also serious and filled with poignant, well articulated insights. I mentioned earlier that Irdal felt a loss of freedom when he got his first watch (and there’s a fun look at the thesis of a book entitled The Psychoanalysis of Clocks, written by another seminal character in Irdal’s past, Dr. Ramiz).
I fear that those who see freedom solely as a political concept will never fully grasp its meaning. The political pursuit of freedom can lead to its eradication on a grand scale — or rather it opens the doors to countless curtailments. It seems that freedom is the most coveted commodity in the world: for just when one person decides to gorge upon it those around him are deprived. Never have I known a concept so inextricable from its antithesis, and indeed entirely crushed under its weight. I have been made to understand that in my 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.
Indeed, the watch itself takes away his freedom, yet leads him to freedom’s door.
It’s a book filled with ideas, energy, and a fascinating critique of an important transition in Turkish — and our — history. As such, I highly recommend it, though, as I mentioned above, I sometimes found myself out to sea. Consequently, I will warn readers looking for a tight narrative to look elsewhere — to look elsewhere for that narrative, but not to look away entirely.
Before I go, I want to note the physical product: the print edition put out by Penguin Classics. The Time Regulation Institute is their first in a new line they are calling “Black Tie Classics” (jacket required). The book itself is still the familiar and comforting black spine softcover Penguin Classic, but it comes wrapped in a slip cover with a die-cut design. I’m anxious to see what “black tie” is coming next.
Lastly, all over the place, you’ll see reports that this is the first time this book has been translated in to English, which isn’t true. In 2001 it was translated into English by Ender Gürol and published by a small Turkish publisher. Consequently, this book will not feature on the Best Translated Book Award. That said, if it were eligible, I would bet on it as a finalist.