The Time Regulation Institute

Prepare to enjoy a voice you did not know existed. A splendid new English translation of the satiric novel The Time Regulation Institute, by the Turkish writer Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, will be the first introduction many American readers have to this beguiling twentieth-century writer, born in Istanbul in 1901, who wrote in the expansive, unhurried tempo of an earlier era — a little like Russia’s Ivan Goncharov, author of Oblomov, but with more energy, art, and invention. Tanpinar’s countryman Orhan Pamuk has deemed him “the most remarkable author in modern Turkish literature” —  calling this particular novel, published in 1962, the year of Tanpinar’s death, an “allegorical masterpiece.” The luxuriant language and sensibility will envelop you as irresistibly as Oblomov’s soft, richly hued Persian dressing gown — “so capacious that he could wrap it round him twice.” And the translators, Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, have worked in tandem to do justice to Tanpinar’s multi-timbred prose, so readers can hear “the Turkish music coming through.”

Tanpinar came of age during the progress-drunk 1920s and 1930s, as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first president of the secular Republic of Turkey, wrenched his country from its Ottoman past and forcibly imposed Western ideas of modernity. Atatürk’s reforms extended even to the words Tanpinar had grown up speaking and reading: in 1932, he launched a “Language Revolution,” cutting the Ottoman Turkish vocabulary roughly in half by excising the Persian and Arabic words that had formerly enriched it  and changing the written alphabet from Perso-Arabic to Latin. Tanpinar’s resistance to the compression of his habitual expression made some of his contemporaries call him old-fashioned. In The Time Regulation Institute, he exacts his revenge, sending up the top-down imposition of social change through the misadventures of a benighted Everyman named Hayri Irdal, an amiable loafer who has spent “the better part of his life on wooden benches in coffeehouses” chatting with a ragtag bunch of garrulous idlers like himself. “Hayri” means “auspicious” in Turkish, but solid evidence of anything but bad luck is hard to spot in his first half century. The great-grandson, grandson, and son of bungling, impecunious men who had failed, one after another, to accomplish their sworn vow of building a mosque, Hayri grows up dogged by this collective flop and haunted by a family heirloom that was supposed to stand inside the unbuilt mosque: an erratic grandfather clock that his parents revere and fear, calling it alternately “the Blessed One” and “the Calamity.”

Understandably, time — “the spirit of my childhood” — comes to obsess Hayri, and as a boy he learns his lone marketable skill, mending watches and clocks, from an “esteemed religious time setter” known as Nuri Efendi and a poor clockmaker called Asim Efendi. (Lest you think all the characters are related to one another, “efendi” is a formal Turkish term of address, like “sir” or “madam,” and is often tacked on to “Bey” — Mr. — or Hanim — Mrs. or Miss. These titles follow the given name, not the surname; e.g., Hayri Beyefendi; Selma Hanim.) Useful as the knowledge of the repair of timepieces can be, it does little to help the adult Hayri support his sprawling family — his second wife, her unmarried sisters, and his children from a first marriage. Nonetheless, one day in an Istanbul coffeehouse, after fifty years of poverty and misery,  Hayri at last meets a well-connected rainmaker named Halit Ayarci, who dramatically improves his fortunes.

Upon discovering Hayri’s unusual skill at fixing watches, Halit Ayarci instantly conceives a scheme to exploit the country’s mania for progress. He dreams up an absurd company (the Time Regulation Institute of the title) that will employ a vast bureaucracy to ensure that all watches and clocks in Istanbul tell the correct time, assisted by publicity and publishing arms that will churn out exhortatory slogans and propagandistic treatises to spread the news of the importance of timeliness. Government honchos, impressed both by the efficient ring of Halit Ayarci’s plan and by his utter conviction in it, enthusiastically fund the Institute, allowing Ayarci to hire hundreds of staffers (all of them selected through nepotism and patronage) to accomplish the “vital task” of bringing Turkey up to the minute.

Ayarci carves out an especially comfortable position for Hayri, making him assistant general manager and granting him a lavish salary. This windfall terrifies the humble watch repairman, who regards the entire enterprise as preposterous and believes his sudden luck will evaporate at any second. “It had the logic of a fairytale,” he thinks. “Could such a job really exist? What was its purpose? And why?” Such details do not concern Halit Ayarci. “Work is a matter of mastering one’s time, knowing how to use it,” he explains. “We shall declare that man is first and foremost a creature who works, and that work itself is time. Is this not a constructive thing to do?” When Hayri moans that the Institute’s brief is unrealistic, Halit scolds him, “Being a realist does not mean seeing the truth for what it is. It is a question of determining our relationship with the truth in the way that is most beneficial for us.” He adds defiantly, “What do you achieve by accepting reality as it is?” As Halit’s plan comes to fruition, stylishly uniformed Institute enforcers fan out across Istanbul’s streets, levying tiny fines on Turks whose watches are incorrectly synchronized — a punishment the townspeople find hilarious. Tanpinar writes, “When an inspector notified a citizen of his fine, the offender would initially express surprise, but upon apprehending the firm logic behind the system, a smile would spread across his face until, at last understanding this was a serious matter, he would succumb to uproarious laughter.”

Nonetheless, from the novel’s opening pages, the reader knows that Hayri’s misgivings are justified; the story he relates is told in retrospect. After flourishing for a decade, the Time Regulation Institute had been exposed for the fraud it was and abruptly shut down, prompting Hayri to write his voluminous memoirs. (As the Institute collapsed, Ayarci had cannily saved Hayri and the other staffers from ruin by having it converted into a fully staffed committee for its own perpetual liquidation.) The trajectory of Hayri’s biography gives the novel its shape and plot, but it is not Tanpinar’s true subject. His true subject is the theatrical cast of sages, seers, psychoanalysts, drunkards, delusional women, conniving relations, and capricious bosses who demonstrate the power and endurance of personality in an age that celebrates conformity. Like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 or Jaroslav Hašek’s unfinished dark comedy, The Good Soldier Švejk, The Time Regulation Institute defends the individual spirit — faulty and inconsistent as it may be — against the state that seeks to submerge it in burdensome, soulless duty — warfare in the case of Heller and Hašek, work in the case of Tanpinar. “In the life of one individual, there are more imperfections than any imagination could ever concoct,” Hayri concedes. “Over an individual’s lifetime these flaws congeal to define his character.” In The Time Regulation Institute, Tanpinar triumphantly asserts the superiority of this mottled, imperfect character over a bland, sanded ideal.

Today, fifty years after the publication of this novel, Atatürk’s modern Turkey and Tanpinar’s patchwork Ottoman culture continue to coexist in the coffeehouses of Istanbul. Raconteurs still hold forth, idlers still idle, and those who heel to the brisk contemporary pace duck in for a quick coffee before checking their cellphones and hurrying off. Tanpinar knew it would be so: “Look how the past carries on in the present and how the serious and the absurd are held fast,” he wrote, savoring Hayri’s coffeehouse and its eccentric regulars: “They each live in entirely separate, imaginary worlds. Yet they dream as a collective society.”