The Time Regulation Institute


A literary discovery: an uproarious tragicomedy of modernization, in its first-ever English translation
Perhaps the greatest Turkish novel of the twentieth century, being discovered around the world only now, more than fifty years after its first publication, The Time Regulation Institute is an antic, freewheeling send-up of the modern bureaucratic state.
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The Time Regulation Institute

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A literary discovery: an uproarious tragicomedy of modernization, in its first-ever English translation
Perhaps the greatest Turkish novel of the twentieth century, being discovered around the world only now, more than fifty years after its first publication, The Time Regulation Institute is an antic, freewheeling send-up of the modern bureaucratic state.
At its center is Hayri Irdal, an infectiously charming antihero who becomes entangled with an eccentric cast of characters—a television mystic, a pharmacist who dabbles in alchemy, a dignitary from the lost Ottoman Empire, a “clock whisperer”—at the Time Regulation Institute, a vast organization that employs a hilariously intricate system of fines for the purpose of changing all the clocks in Turkey to Western time. Recounted in sessions with his psychoanalyst, the story of Hayri Irdal’s absurdist misadventures plays out as a brilliant allegory of the collision of tradition and modernity, of East and West, infused with a poignant blend of hope for the promise of the future and nostalgia for a simpler time.

For more than sixty-five years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,500 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Martin Riker
For all its historical and cultural specificity, The Time Regulation Institute is before all else a first-rate comic novel, one with a fairly large foot in the Western literary tradition called Menippean satire. Works within the orbit of this genre stretch across the centuries…What such otherwise dissimilar books have in common is a delight in exposing the limits of human reason, with particular scorn for any intellectual system that attempts to comprehensively explain the world. Throughout history, whenever a theory arises that seeks to encapsulate human experience—politically, philosophically, economically, whatever—a Menippean satire emerges to make fun of it. So too with The Time Regulation Institute, in which Tanpinar creates an allegorical premise at once specific and broad enough to effectively satirize the entire 20th century, a century of systems if ever there was.
Publishers Weekly
Reviewed By Saïd Sayrafiezadeh. Two of the greatest fears of any author are obscurity and irrelevance—in that order—and there’s not much one can do about either. The former is generally in the hands of the publisher, and the latter in the hands of the reader. This is the gamble all writers take as they commence to pour heart, soul, and years into their work. “Seventeen copies sold,” Samuel Beckett wrote in Krapp’s Last Tape, “of which eleven at trade price to free circulating libraries beyond the seas,” adding acerbically, “Getting known.” Turkish author, critic, poet Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, who died in 1962, is overcoming the first of these writerly ailments, traversing the seas by way of an English-language translation of his 1954 novel, The Time Regulation Institute. Too strong a claim of discovery, however, may unwittingly reveal our orientalist perspective: Tanpinar, virtually unknown in the West, has long been revered in his country. “I shall leave behind a work,” protagonist Hayri Irdal assures us early in the book, “that I believe will more or less secure me a place in the annals of history.” Time and its subsequent passage are ostensibly the great preoccupations of this novel. Irdal, put upon and impoverished for much of his life, discovers that happiness lies in his skill for repairing timepieces. We are on the precipice of allegorical territory where the reader may catch glimpses of the bewildered citizens of Franz Kafka and the cracked community of Gabriel García Márquez, and where the Time Regulation Institute itself will be built, founded with the Sisyphean goal of syncing all the clocks of Turkey, thereby ushering the nation into the modern age. But this is not really what the novel is about. In fact, it’s difficult to say what the novel is really about. Some of its confounding nature is due to the Western reader’s inability to discern, for instance, the historical significance of a character who skips Arabic and Persian words while reading. Most of the confusion, though, is Tanpinar’s responsibility; he has assembled a compendium of past events but hasn’t dramatized them. After one character commits suicide (off page), another, who happens to be a novelist, decides to incorporate this event into her book. “Wouldn’t any author have done the same?” Irdal asks. No, not if it doesn’t pertain to the story. But the story is subsumed by the “memoir” that Irdal is writing, a problematic framing device for any author, as it can allow for egregious digressions. Meanwhile, the reader waits for the narrative to begin. In An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser opened with a maddening 400-page preamble before arriving at the story proper—one that, 90 years later, still packs a punch. In that case, the wait was worth it. In this case, the wait is in vain. Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, is the author, most recently, of the story collection Brief Encounters with the Enemy and the memoir When Skateboards Will Be Free. His stories and essays have appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review and Granta.
From the Publisher
“Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar is undoubtedly the most remarkable author in modern Turkish literature. With The Time Regulation Institute, this great writer has created an allegorical masterpiece, which makes Turkey’s attempts to westernize and its delayed modernity understandable in all its human ramifications.” —Orhan Pamuk, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature

“This excellent book . . . is before all else a first-rate comic novel. . . . Not only entertaining and substantial but also, for lack of a better word, timely. For beyond the historical relevance, beyond the comic esprit, Tanpinar’s elaborate bittersweet sendup of Turkish culture over a half-century ago speaks perfectly clearly to our own, offering long-distance commiseration to anyone whose life is twisted around schedules and deadlines—pretty much everyone, in other words—provided you can find the time to read it.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Ingeniously satirical and hauntingly philosophical . . . Bracingly original . . . [A] superb translation.” The Wall Street Journal

“A modernist novel par excellence: absurdist, obsessive, funny, dark . . . An excellent book about the ­terrible struggle to impose order onto inner and outer states.” New York magazine

“A truly pathbreaking novel, at once nostalgic and modernist, contemporary and out of its time.” —Bookforum

“A splendid new version [of] Tanpinar’s eccentric, colourful, ruefully comic saga.” —The Independent, “Books of the Year”

“Spellbinding . . . A gem . . . A very funny novel, both in design and line by line . . . As compelling as a lucid dream . . . Its publication feels like a victory. . . . Both novel and author are undeniable stars and deserve, one feels, to have finally reached the world stage, showcased in a spotlight as bright as Penguin Classics.” —The National

“One of the best comic novels of the twentieth century in any language.” —Guernica

“Prepare to enjoy a voice you did not know existed. . . . [A] beguiling twentieth-century writer, [Tanpinar] 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 multi-timbred prose [and his] luxuriant language and sensibility will envelop you. . . . 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. . . . Splendid.” —Liesl Schillinger, The Barnes & Noble Review

“Laceratingly comic . . . [A] brilliant satire on a modernizing bureaucracy.” —Literary Review

“During Tanpinar’s lifetime he was misunderstood and underestimated . . . ; today, decades after his death, he is adulated in Turkey almost to the point of worship. . . . The questions of identity and how to escape it were examined by Tanpinar . . . through incisive analysis and subtle satire—and perhaps nowhere more powerfully than in his best-known book, The Time Regulation Institute, which is now available in a new English translation and with a superb introduction by Pankaj Mishra. . . . The translation deserves commendation. . . . The writing feels timeless and universal. . . . The questions [Tanpinar] raised, perhaps now more than ever, matter not only in Turkey but around the world.” —Elif Shafak, The Times Literary Supplement

“Hilarious . . . Richly imagined . . . A brilliant author . . . Like Proust, and Pamuk, Tanpinar opens doors to other books and ideas. . . . Tanpinar’s prose . . . glows and echoes, and one never quite forgets the strange taste of his sentences after reading them. . . . [The Time Regulation Institute is] perhaps the best Turkish novel of the 20th century alongside Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book.” —PEN Atlas

“Like all great satire, this book will make readers laugh and cringe in equal measure. . . . [It] seamlessly combines personal wit with political satire.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Brilliantly comic . . . As you read The Time Regulation Institute, you may have the impression that you are reading a nineteenth-century novel— . . . with dozens of characters, surprising sub-plots and revelations—in short, all the good stuff of those classic French, German, English and Russian classics. So now we can add a Turkish novel to the list. . . . Tanpinar’s masterpiece [is] finally available in a glorious English translation.” —Counterpunch

Kirkus Reviews
A Turkish novel published more than 50 years ago is now translated into English for the first time. Tanpinar's style hearkens back to the great 18th-century English writers Laurence Sterne and Jonathan Swift, for he seamlessly combines personal wit with political satire. The narrator, Hayri Irdal, presents his life story in the guise of a memoir about his (along with others') creation of the Time Regulation Institute, charged with changing the clocks of Turkey to Western time. The institute is given the freedom to use an elaborate series of fines for those who fail to comply, and Irdal delights in the--dare one say Byzantine?--system of synchronization. Along the way, we meet a bizarre and eccentric cast of characters. Among the most memorable are his analyst, Dr. Ramiz, denizen of coffee houses and founder of the Society for Psychoanalysis (Ramiz has the modern attitude that Irdal is ill, "the fate we all share since the birth of psychoanalysis"); Halit Ayarci, who according to Irdal served as a "dear benefactor and beloved friend who plucked me from poverty and despair and made me the person I am today"; Irdal's imperious and controlling father-in-law, Abdüsselam Bey; and Irdal's wives, children and co-workers. At the center of the novel is Turkey's Westernization and modernization, a task undertaken with vigor in the early 20th century and one that Tanpinar examines with great irony from the befuddled stance of Irdal. Like all great satire, this book will make readers laugh and cringe in equal measure.
The Barnes & Noble Review

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 Atatü:rk, the first president of the secular Republic of Turkey, wrenched his country from its Ottoman past and forcibly imposed Western ideas of modernity. Atatü:rk'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 in half by excising the Persian and Arabic words that had formerly enriched it and changing the written alphabet from 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 Hasek's unfinished dark comedy, The Good Soldier Svejk, 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 Hasek, 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, Atat?rk'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."

Liesl Schillinger is a New York–based writer and translator. Her Penguin Classics translation of The Lady of the Camellias, by Alexandre Dumas Fils, appeared in the summer of 2013. In the fall, her illustrated book of neologisms, Wordbirds, was published by Simon & Schuster.

Reviewer: Liesl Schillinger

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143106739
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/7/2014
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 302,009
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.70 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar (1901-1962) is considered one of the most significant Turkish novelists of the twentieth century. Also a poet, short-story writer, essayist, literary historian, and professor, he created a unique cultural universe in his work, combining a European literary voice with the Ottoman sensibilities of the Near East.

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Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***

Copyright © 2013 by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe

For ten years, I acted as assistant head manager of one of the most innovative and beneficial organizations in the world. I helped not only my own immediate family but also my close and distant relatives and my friends, even those who had once betrayed me, by providing them with employment and a sense and source of well-being. In this regard I suppose it would suffice to highlight our contribution to urban development through the construction of a new district near Suadiye, as well as the services our institute provided to its workers, most of whom were in fact relatives of either myself or Halit ayarci. For as soon as the institute was established, Halit made the very important decision—from which we never strayed—that half the management positions and other important posts would be filled by members of our families and the other half by those who had the recommendation of a notable personage.

I am not sure if I need to mention the criticisms much aired in the papers long before it was decided to liquidate the institute or the ever more violent attacks that followed the institute’s dissolution. Life can be so strange. Ten years ago the very same papers delighted in everything we did, showering us with praise and holding us aloft as a model to the world. Though they attended our every press conference and never missed an official cocktail party, these dear friends of mine now do nothing but hurl abuse.

First they condemned the organization for its unwieldy size and inefficiency. Overlooking the fact that we created jobs for so many in a country where unemployment is rampant, they railed against our excesses: three management offices, eleven management branches, forty-seven typists, and two hundred seventy control bureaus. Then they ridiculed the names of our various branches, overlooking the fact that a watch or clock is indeed made up of hands for minutes and hours, a spring, a pendulum, and a pin, as if the thing we all know as time were not in fact divided into hours, minutes, seconds, and milliseconds. Later the papers called into question the training, expertise, and intellectual underpinnings of our licensed employees—who had garnered over ten years’ experience with us—before mercilessly denouncing my early book, The Life and Works of Ahmet the Timely, which had once delighted them.

After tearing to pieces The Life and Works of Ahmet the Timely, they went on to attack all our other studies. For days on end, we would open the papers to find reproductions of our book covers under preposterous headlines that implied the works were somehow subversive or only worthy of derision: The Effect of the North Wind upon the Regulation of Cosmic Time, penned with such painstaking attention to detail by the head of our Millisecond Branch (also husband to our family’s youngest sister-in-law); or Time and Psychoanalysis and The Irdal Method of Time Characterology, both by my dear friend Dr. Ramiz; or Halit Ayarci’s Social Monism and Time and The Second and Society.

As if that was not enough, they went on to accuse us outright of being frauds and charlatans, homing in on our accumulative fining system, with its proportional reductions and the bonus discounts that had once so amused and entertained our fellow citizens while also allowing the institute to pursue its varied social and scientific activities. But how warmly these same people had once applauded this system of fines, which I myself invented, just to pass the time, while watching my wife, Pakize, and Halit Ayarci play endless games of backgammon for petty cash during their gambling soirees.

One of our esteemed financiers publicly declared this system of fines a most remarkable innovation in the history of accounting and took every opportunity to remind me that he would never hesitate to put me in the same company as the illustrious financiers Doctor Turgot, Necker, and Schacht.

And he was right. For in matters of finance—whereby money turns people into good taxpayers—unhappiness has forever been the rule. And in the matter of fines in particular, people inevitably feel a certain discomfort. But our system was not at all like that. 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. I cannot count the number of people—especially in the early days— who would extend a business card to our inspectors, saying, “Oh please, you absolutely must come over to our house sometime. My wife really must see this. Here’s my address,” and offer to cover the inspector’s taxi fare.

Our system of fines specified the collection of five kurus for every clock or watch not synchronized with any other clock in view, particularly those public clocks belonging to the municipality. However, the offender’s fine would be doubled if his timepiece differed from that of any other in the vicinity. Thus the fine might rise proportionally when there were several timepieces nearby. Since the perfect regulation of time is impossible—because of the personal freedom afforded by watches and clocks, something I was naturally in no position at the time to explain—a single inspection, especially in one of the busier parts of town, made it possible to collect a not insignificant sum.

The last calculation required by this confusing system concerned the difference between watches or clocks that were either fast or slow. Everyone knows that a watch or clock is either fast or slow. For timepieces, there is no third state. It is an accepted axiom very much akin to the impossibility of exact regulation; that is, of course, assuming the watch or clock has not stopped altogether. But here matters become more personal. My own view is this: since man was created ruler of the universe, objects can be expected to reflect the tenor of his rule. For example, during my childhood, under the reign of Abdülhamid II, our entire society was moribund. Our dissatisfaction stemmed from the sultan’s long face, but it radiated out and infected even physical objects. Everyone my age will recall the mournful cries of the ferryboats of that era, with their piercing foghorns. But with the favorable unfolding of events thereafter, we find our days so full of delight that we now hear joy in a ferryboat’s horn and in the clang of a trolley’s bell.

The same can be said for watches and clocks. They inevitably fall in step with an owner’s natural disposition, be it ponderous or ebullient, and in the same way they reflect his conjugal patterns and political persuasions. Certainly in a society like ours that has been swept along by one revolution after another in its relentless march toward progress, leaving behind diverse communities and entire generations, it is all too understandable that our political persuasions would find expression in this way. Political creeds remain secret for one reason or another. With so many sanctions hanging over us, no one is about to stand up in a public place and proclaim, “Now, this is what I think!” or even to say such a thing aloud, for that matter. Thus it is our watches and clocks that hold our secrets, as well as the beliefs and habits that set us apart from others.

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Reading Group Guide


Here is the first English translation of Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s satirical masterpiece, The Time Regulation Institute. It offers readers a fascinating look at the artistry of one of Turkey’s greatest novelists, as well as a brilliant take on the ambivalent consequences of modernization.

The Time Regulation Institute takes the form of a fictional memoir written by Hayri Irdal. Though he claims to have never cared much for reading or writing, he feels compelled to tell his life story to honor the memory of his benefactor and beloved friend, Halit Ayarci. Ayarci founded the Time Regulation Institute and, as Hayri says, “plucked me from poverty and despair and made me the person I am today” (p. 4). That person is surely one of the most engaging, inventive, and altogether remarkable narrators in all of literature.

For much of the first half of the novel, Hayri Irdal is tossed by fate from one absurd situation to another. Surrounded by eccentrics, Hayri gets caught up in Seyit Lutfullah’s tireless search for a portal to the other side of reality; in his Aunt’s violent outbursts and vengeful resurrection; in fantastical coffeehouse philosophizing; and in a ridiculous trial concerning the possession of a wonderous diamond that Seyit Lutfullah claimed to have seen during one of his otherworldly visits to the emperor Andronikos. Hayri makes an impassioned speech during the trial that lands him in the Department of Justice Medical Facility, where he is subjected to Dr. Ramiz’s Kafkaesque psychoanalytical methods and told he has a “father complex.” He takes a series of tenuous jobs, ranging from clockmaker’s apprentice to secretary of the Spiritualist Society. He marries, has children, serves in the army, but his life is flustered and aimless—until me meets his benefactor Halit Ayarci.

Halit Ayarci lifts him from poverty and aimlessness, placing him in a position of importance at the Time Regulation Institute and giving him some semblance of purpose. But it is an absurd purpose: creating a bureaucracy that defines its own function, that exists solely to justify its own existence. Its stated goal of synchronizing all clocks and watches, passing laws, creating adages, and levying fines to that effect, hardly makes any sense. And indeed Hayri recognizes the pointlessness of the institute’s work. “We don’t seem to be engaged in meaningful activity,” he argues. To which Ayarci offers an uncannily down-the-rabbit-hole postmodernist reply: “What do you mean by meaningful? Are the meanings we share not plucked from the air at a moment’s notice?” (p. 259).

This exchange underscores the groundlessness of the modern world that Hayri finds so disorienting. Halit repeatedly accuses Hayri of being old-fashioned, of clinging to outmoded ideas of work, truth, purpose, craftsmanship, etc., in a world being rapidly reshaped by mechanization, bureaucracy, and a manipulative, self-serving relationship to reality. The novel is above all a satire about the absurdities and dehumanizing abstractions of the modern world, with Hayri Irdal serving as the hapless victim on whom these absurdities are inflicted.

But the novel is striking not just for its comic brilliance or for its profound insights into the disruptions of modernity. It is remarkable most of all for Tanpinar’s dazzling prose style. Sentences unfold in sinuous coils of multiplying clauses, extended metaphors, hyperbolic exclamations, and an imaginative brio rarely surpassed in modern fiction. Tanpinar was a poet as well as a novelist, and the vividness, inventiveness, and music of his language, even in translation, are remarkable throughout a The Time Regulation Institute, a novel rightly hailed as a tour de force of modern Turkish literature.


Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar (1901–1962) is considered one of the most significant Turkish novelists of the twentieth century. Also a poet, short-story writer, essayist, literary historian, and professor, he created a unique cultural universe in his work, combining a European literary voice with the Ottoman sensibilities of the Near East.

Maureen Freely was born in the United States, grew up in Istanbul, studied at Radcliffe, and now lives in England, where she teaches at the University of Warwick. The author of seven novels, she is the principal translator of the Nobel Prize–winning novelist, Orhan Pamuk.

Alexander Dawe is an American translator of French and Turkish. He lives in Istanbul.

Pankaj Mishra is an award-winning novelist and essayist whose writing appears frequently in the New York Review of Books, Guardian, and London Review of Books.

Q. In your note on the translation, you mention how important the music of language was for Tanpinar, that he was a poet as well as a novelist. Can you give us some idea of how his language sounds in Turkish?

Tanpinar published just one small collection of poetry featuring finely crafted, beautifully cadenced poems full of explosive imagery in which music often mattered as much as meaning. Although perhaps overly stylized and opaque, they are intimate pieces that induce a kind of meditative trance. Tanpinar appreciated both Western and Turkish classical music, and he often tried to capture the essence of the music he loved in his poetry and prose, melding the idea of sound to image—for example the rhythm, melody or mood of a particular Turkish scale might be likened to a distant tower or the sea. We see the same attention to music in his prose but there he draws upon a richer vocabulary, a beautiful blend of often arcane words of Persian and Arabic origin, the very ones Hayri Irdal, our narrator from The Time Regulation Institute, says he skipped over in his early reading. But Tanpinar (and perhaps Hayri, too) relished the sound of many of these words and bemoaned the fact that they were thrown out during the drive to modernize the young republic. In fact, he almost seems to make a point of zeroing in on them in his work, to show us the richness of the Turkish language when it’s firing on all four linguistic cylinders—Ottoman, Persian, Arabic and Modern Turkish.

Q. At the end of the note, you also say the solution to working out the shape and dimensions of The Time Regulation Institute came to Alex in a dream, which seems uncannily appropriate for the kind of novel that this is. Could you say what the dream was about and how it solved the problem?

We’d spent quite some time trying to picture Hayri’s elaborate architectural design for the Time Regulation Institute; initially it didn’t seem to physically make much sense and we wondered if that was the point: the building was some kind of incomprehensible model of Hayri’s imagination gone wild. So we decided to sleep on it. In the morning, Alex had a vague sense of having seen the institute in a dream. It was Muburak, the Blessed One, the beloved grandfather clock of Hayri’s childhood! But—strangely, and perhaps impossibly—it also suggested a mosque. The image had faded by the time he woke up but after discussing the dream and working through the description together, we realized that the solution was really quite simple: all we needed was a change of perspective. Hayri was describing the structure from a top-down, bird’s-eye view, seeing the full face of a clock from the air, the clock pavilions representing the different hours. Nevertheless, it is still difficult to fully imagine this complex and paradoxical marriage of old and new, east and west, and that maybe is the way it should be—an unachievable, Escher-like structure, more of an ideal than an actual reality.

Q. Which chapter did you most enjoy translating? How satisfied are you with the English version of the novel? How have Turkish readers responded to the translation?

We had the most fun with the comedic episodes—when Hayri’s Aunt rises from the dead, for example, or when Dr. Ramiz drills Hayri on the importance of will power—and then there are the wonderful descriptions of Hayri’s friends, such as Nuri Efendi, Lutfullah and Abdüsselam. There is a beautiful description of Nuri in his time workshop, carefully working on his almanac, surrounded by all the different timepieces, “as if waiting for their time to rule the world.” Lutfullah’s descriptions of his travels to the world beyond the curtain are truly lovely. And Hayri’s short-lived collaboration with his son on the institute itself is as absurd as it is sublime.

Q. You say that Tanpinar was heavily criticized in literary circles as “old-fashioned and irrelevant,” a charge that is made several times against the novel’s hero, Hayri Irdal, as well. To what extent is Hayri an extension of Tanpinar?

We suppose Tanpinar related to Hayri in many different ways. Tanpinar was locked in a bitter battle with intellectuals who, in the early years of the republic, were relentlessly set on promoting a pure Turkish purged of words of Persian and Arabic origin. But the project made little sense as many commonly used words were not of Turkic origin. It would be something akin to a native speaker of English insisting that the word façade (of French origin) should forcibly be replaced with the word “skein” (a word of Middle English origin), for the sake of preserving and perpetuating a monolithic cultural or national identity. There is also no doubt that Tanpinar would have related to Hayri’s refusal to entirely dismiss the past. Tanpinar always actively promoted a blend of past and present, a synthesis of the two worlds, as well a balance of Eastern and Western attitudes and sensibilities. That said, Hayri is a bit of a fool, and Tanpinar offers us many jokes at his expense. Perhaps it is best to think of him as Tanpinar’s jester. He is always getting things wrong. He makes outrageous excuses for himself. He is tragically gullible, and yet, at the end of the day, he is a narrator we can love and trust.

Q. The Time Regulation Institute seems at times to echo the absurdism of Kafka and Beckett and even the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Who were Tanpinar’s biggest influences?

Tanpinar’s poetic voice was very much informed by French symbolists and he closely read the work of Paul Valery, a man of letters whom he admired for both his dynamism and his intellectual breadth. He also was a big fan of Aldous Huxley and James Joyce. Some of his short stories eerily echo stories in Dubliners and a dramatic suicide in his novel A Mind at Peace is clearly modeled after one in Huxley’s Point Counter Point. He was probably inspired by Huxley’s flare for uproariously funny dramatic episodes as well as his interest in capturing music in word. Tanpinar cites a sea change in his literary work after discovering Western classical music; he was equally interested in replicating musical forms in the novel—the four main sections of A Mind at Peace are modeled on the classic four movements of a symphony—as well as capturing the ephemeral, oneiric nature of music in his prose. In his short story Summer Rain he intricately describes the music of Debussy in a series of cascading, vibrant images.

No one writing about bureaucracy in the twentieth century could claim not to have been influenced by Kafka. And no one writing about time in that century would forget to refer back to Henri Bergson. The main thing to remember is that Tanpinar was deeply influenced by, and in perpetual conversation with European literary and intellectual culture. He was not a magical realist, but like the Latin Americans who would go on to define that tendency in the later decades of the century, hethought of Paris as the center of the world.


  1. What motivates Hayri Irdal to write his memoirs, even though he announces in the first sentence that he “never cared much for reading or writing” (p. 3)? Does he succeed in honoring his friend and benefactor Hayri Ayarci?
  2. How does Hayri’s life change over the course of the novel? What are the most serious (and at the same time absurdly comic) troubles that beset him? How does he react to these challenges?
  3. The Time Regulation Institute is an unusual, unconventional novel. Instead of a clear plot that builds narrative momentum, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar relies on a loosely connected episodic structure. In what way is this appropriate to the fictional memoir the novel presents? What are the pleasures of reading a novel structured in this way?
  4. How would you describe the kind of humor that permeates The Time Regulation Institute?What are some of the novel’s funniest moments?
  5. Tanpinar’s sentences as well as his sensibility are brilliantly inventive. He has a particular gift for hyperbole and for striking metaphors. For example: “With each sip, and indeed with each new glass, I saw the woes that had so oppressed me taking flight, as the daybreak call to prayers might startle a murder of crows from the treetops in the mosque courtyard, dispatching them to far-flung lands, never to return” (p. 222). Why are sentences like this such a joy to read? What do they contribute to the overall texture of the novel?
  6. Why is Hayri sent to the Department of Justice Medical Facility to undergo psychoanalysis with Dr. Ramiz? What are the most absurd aspects of Dr. Ramiz’s methods? Is there any truth to his assertion that Hayri suffers from a “father complex?”
  7. Hayri berates the watchmaker who had tried to fix Halit Ayarci’s watch: “This wasn’t made on a factory line. It was painstakingly crafted by hand! It’s a letter from one master craftsman to another, but clearly it wasn’t written for you!” Hayri points to the designs on the engraved on the inside of the front cover and says: “It truly grieves me to see a craftsman’s place usurped by a merchant” (p. 204–205). In what ways does this passage illustrate the changes modernity was bringing to a world once dominated not by commerce and mechanization but by craftsmen and craftsmanship? Why does Hayri lament the loss of this world so profoundly? What role has the advent of clocks and watches played in this change?
  8. The self-serving and self-justifying proliferation of modern bureaucracy is an obvious satirical target of The Time Regulation Institute. What other aspects of modern life does the book satirize?
  9. Halit Ayarci chides Hayri for being an old-fashioned idealist. He goes on to say: “Being a realist does not mean seeing the truth for what it is. It is a question of determining our relationship to the truth in a way that is most beneficial for us” (p. 233). What are the implications of these differing ways of seeing “the truth?” Does Halit Ayarci’s position anticipate a postmodernist critique of straightforward notions of what is true? Or is his comment simply a bit of self-serving sophistry?
  10. What is the irony of the Time Regulation Institute being saved, at the last minute, by Halit Ayarci succeeding in having it placed in a state of “permanent liquidation?”
  11. Hayri is surrounded by a cast of eccentric characters—Nuri Efendi, Seyit Lutfullah, Dr. Ramiz, Sabriye Hanim, Cemal Bey, Halit Ayarci, his wife Pakize, and many others. What makes these characters so engaging and entertaining? What do they add to the novel?
  12. When Hayri tells Halit “we don’t seem to be engaged in meaningful activity,” Halit responds: “We are indeed engaged in work, and work that is vital. Work is a matter of mastering one’s time, knowing how to use it. We are paving the way for such a philosophy. We’ll give our people a consciousness of time. We’ll create a whole new collection of adages and ideas, and spread them all over the country. 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” (p. 259)? How would you answer this question? Is it constructive to declare that man is above all a creature who works and that work itself is time? Has Halit Ayarci’s prediction come true?

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