The Greatest Turkish Novel?

This article is part of the English PEN Between EU and Me project, supported by the European Commission

I belong to a generation that often measures the success of authors not by their literary achievements but by their political stance. Since my school days, I saw how the artistic sins of a writer could be readily forgiven as long as the author in question had progressive views. After all, we believed, it was their politics, rather than their artistic talents, that mattered most. This category mistake is still made today. When my friends ask me to name the best contemporary author in Turkey, I sense their actual question is: “Which Turkish contemporary author has the views you accept/like the most?

So imagine the surprise when my generation of young Turks discovered the works of Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, an author who had made a mockery of the idea of progress in his comic novels and who had found little to like in the culture of modernity. For Tanpınar, this dissatisfaction was the starting point of a number of books which fed on the discrepancy between the traditional and the modern.

Tanpınar is not an easy writer. Reading The Time Regulation Institute (translated by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe in a handsome edition by Penguin Classics) provides ample evidence of that. This comic novel features the adventures of a group of ‘institution men’, who, heroically and absurdly, try to synchronise all the clocks of Turkey. The result is a challenging and hilarious read and, for me, perhaps the best Turkish novel of the 20th century alongside Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book.

Tanpınar’s language is rich with Turkish, French and Ottoman words. The narrators in his books are carefully planned and richly imagined by a novelist, rather than an ideologue. Tanpınar excels at parody, psychological realism and dramatic irony. He is also a poet, but most critics believe that his prose is much superior to his verse.

Tanpınar’s grammar is nothing like the proper, neat Turkish grammar taught at school. Unlike his contemporary Turkish social-realists, for whom language was merely a tool with which to educate the ‘ignorant masses’, Tanpınar’s prose is impressionistic and musical. It glows and echoes, and one never quite forgets the strange taste of his sentences after reading them.

He has no patience for the kind of reader who has no patience with the complexities of history and culture. His books are a living challenge to the cultural policies of the modern Turkish state, which has long demanded that writers use language ideologically and for political ends. Tanpınar’s other major novel, A Mind at Peace (also available in English), provided an antidote to the soulless ‘modern’ novels taught to us in academic curricula. In those ideological novels, an eternal and clichéd struggle takes place between preachers and adversaries of modernity. In Tanpınar’s novels things are a bit more complicated. The spiritual characters are cherished rather than demonised. He carefully handles fragile traditions rather than breaking them into pieces.  

Belittled in his time for his unfashionable intellectual interests, Tanpınar was called Kırtıpil (shoddy) Hamdi by the cultural elite and earned himself a rather tragic image. He came to be seen as a sort of sacred but forgotten figure because of his acute interest in tradition. New studies on Tanpınar and his recently published memoirs (Günlüklerin Işığında Tanpınar’la Başbaşa, 2007) challenge that tragic image. Not only a brilliant author, but also an energetic politician and a member of the establishment, he served in parliament during the single party era and never stood on the sidelines. His critique of modernity owes most of its insights to the fact that he had been a servant of its institutions.

In my school years, when Tanpınar quickly rose to academic and literary hipness, it was increasingly the norm, rather than the exception, to question the process of modernisation. Modernity’s obsession with progress and efficiency had been largely embraced by the earlier generation of authors who treated them like sacred objects. For Tanpınar, a break with history and tradition was not a cause for celebration. On the contrary, that rupture provided him with a sense of duty about the importance of recollecting the past. I first read his works in black-covered Yapı Kredi editions where he was in good company. The same publishing house published the first complete Turkish translation of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.

Like Proust, and Pamuk, Tanpınar opens doors to other books and ideas. I am curious about what thousands of new readers (some of whom must have first heard his name on Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club where the Institute was recently recommended) will make of him. I think Tanpınar’s crowning success was that, unlike his progressive or conservative contemporaries, no political organisation or school can claim him today. Perhaps the only institute he can be a member of is his own Institute of Time Regulation.

Kaya Genç is a novelist and essayist from Istanbul. His work has appeared in the Paris Review Daily, the Guardian, the Financial Times, the London Review of Books blog, Salon, Guernica Magazine, Sight & Sound, the Millions, the White Review, the New Inquiry, The Rumpus, Index on Censorship, the Guardian Weekly, HTMLGIANT, Songlines, and PankL’Avventura (Macera), his first novel, was published in 2008. He is the Istanbul correspondent of the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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For more on Kaya Genç and his writing visit his website.

Ahmed Hamdi Tanpınar was a beloved Turkish novelist and essayist and a member of Turkish parliament. Born in Istanbul in 1901, Tanpinar came to be educated in several Turkish cities and and travelled widely throughout Europe. The Time Regulation Institute is his most celebrated novel, followed by A Mind at Peace.

The Time Regulation Institute, by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, translated by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, is available from Penguin Classics.