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Kaya Genç: The Self-Inventions of Modernity

March 12, 2014

On Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar's great satire of Turkish modernization, The Time Regulation Institute.

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Image from Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar. Courtesy of Kalem Agency.

By Kaya Genç

The modernization of the Ottoman Empire began in 1839 when the state started adapting western ideas; following an almost century long struggle for constitutional rule, the shift culminated in the formation of a secular republic in 1923. It is possible to celebrate, or scrutinize, certain aspects of this process but one thing is certain: A novel about Turkey’s modernization process would not lack the kind of subject matter that led literary theorist Frederic Jameson to famously argue that “all third-world texts are necessarily … allegorical.” There is the ordinary individual coming from an ethnic and cultural background with long held religious beliefs, struggling to fit into the model of a new citizen molded for her by the state apparatus. There is the frustration of a new class of secular citizens pretending to act like Italian gentlemen or French ladies, despite coming from decisively non-European backgrounds. And last, but not least, there is the powerful centralized system of bureaucracy that awards the best imitators of European manners while punishing the less successful ones.

Had The Time Regulation Institute, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar’s magnum opus translated into English by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, only concerned itself with those societal effects of the process of late Ottoman and early republican modernization process it would still be a good book. But it is a great deal more than that. Although it is a deeply political book that undermines the very foundations on which the modernization project had been placed, The Time Regulation Institute is by no means a work of political propaganda or a shallow political allegory. It is one of the best comic novels of twentieth century in any language.

At the heart of Tanpınar’s parody is Hayri İrdal, a Dostoyevskian ‘little man’ who decides to write his memoirs after a long time friend, Halit Ayarcı, dies in a car accident. Together they had set up the Time Regulation Institute, offering their customers a chance to set their pocket watches and clocks to the correct time. Like the state apparatus that struggles to bring the most contemporary ideas to the minds of its citizens, İrdal and Ayarcı’s institute offered customers a chance to synchronize their lives with that of that their nation.

İrdal willingly makes himself subservient to various masters and, until the final pages of the book, agrees to invent tales and fabricate truths in order to be accepted as a modern citizen.

İrdal also serves as the novel’s narrator, and he is a large part of what makes Tanpınar’s novel great. A reliably unreliable narrator, İrdal tells us from the very beginning that he has authored a biographical treatise (“The Life and Works of Ahmet The Timely”) whose subject, Ahmet The Timely, is entirely of his own fabrication. On the face of it there is little reason for us to believe anything he tells us, whether about his own life or another person’s, after he admits to fabricating a historical figure to whom he attributes ideas of a clock master he has worked with. But İrdal somehow manages to convince us that he treats his own story in a truthful way. He promises to arrange the events of his life “into some semblance of order” while bearing in mind the many strict rules of what he calls “sincere writing”. He finds those things indispensable while composing his memoir. Whether to believe in his sincerity or not, on the other hand, is a choice every reader has to make for herself.

İrdal is great material for a novelist to dissect and analyze. In one sense he is the embodiment of the ordinary late Ottoman and early republican citizen — someone who does not come from a privileged background and is not born into money. İrdal’s ordinary status forces him to undergo a number of cultural and political transformations in order to adapt to new times. But İrdal is his own man and not a puppet that Tanpınar uses to attack the ideology of modernism. Tanpınar’s suspicions about the ideas imported from Europe does not stop İrdal from enjoying western technologies and manners. In fact, the latter become inseparable from his character.

Having lived through both late Ottoman and early republican eras, İrdal witnesses the frustrations of a society whose fetishization of modernity leaves it in a constant struggle to keep up with the times. The state apparatus so diligently executes the modernization process that citizens feel a constant need to ‘update’ their mindsets in order to survive. But not everyone agrees to keep up with the times. Labeled alternately as unfashionable people or irrational degenerates, these dissenters are seen as thorns that stand in the way of a smooth transformation of society’s manners and codes.

On the face of it, Hayri İrdal is no such rebel. On the contrary, he is as gentle as a sheep whose only demand from his benefactors is that they sufficiently feed him and order him a glass of rakı once in awhile. İrdal willingly makes himself subservient to various masters and, until the final pages of the book, agrees to invent tales and fabricate truths in order to be accepted as a modern citizen. Indeed, it is this very connection between fabrication and being a modern citizen that lies at the heart of Tanpınar’s book. In order to be modern, one has to willingly fabricate a past for her life, and reject tradition. This is reflected on a larger scale by the modern historians who are paid handsome wages to invent a proper history for their country.

In order to get out of the psychiatric institution, İrdal needs to convince this Germanophile that there is nothing wrong with him. But that, too, needs a bit of invention and forgery. İrdal revises the content of his dreams so that they fit into the Freudian template used by the doctor.

Such submission to the state’s discourse of self-invention is more of a necessity than a choice in a country where every sector of society, in order to survive, has to become subservient to the state. In the Turkey described by Tanpınar, any dissent to the establishment is inconceivable.

* * *

From a very early age İrdal finds himself fascinated by clocks and pocket watches. “My life’s rhythms were disrupted, it would seem, by the watch my uncle gave me on the occasion of my circumcision,” he reminiscences. This is a very momentous occasion which he recounts though the intermediacy of calendars:

When my father recorded my birthday in the back of an old book as the sixteenth day of the holy month of receb in the year 1310 of the Islamic calendar, he did so with the same conviction as I do now, in proclaiming that Hayri İrdal’s true date of birth was the very day he received this watch. From the moment they placed it on my pillow—its blue ribbon a testament to the lengths my aunt was willing to go to avoid paying for a chain—my life changed…

That his father begins a new calendar after İrdal’s acquisition of a pocket watch is significant because it reminds us of the manmade, cultural nature of all time systems. Until 1925 people in the Ottoman empire had used the Rumi calendar, a variation of the Julian calendar. When the Rumi calendar was dropped in favor of the Gregorian calendar, people’s sense of time changed dramatically. Many Ottomans who fought in the Ottoman-Russian war in 1877, for example, had difficulty comprehending that the war they fought (known to them as 93 Harbi, or “the war of ’93” because the war began in 1293 according to Rumi calendar) actually took place in the year 1877, rather than in 1293, as they remembered.

İrdal learns the political nature of time from an early age and starts working as an apprentice for Nuri Efendi, a clock master who teaches him the finer details of the trade. The master informs him about how Muslims had been profoundly attached to their old grandfather clocks because of the importance of knowing prayer times. As a symbol of classicism and rationalism, Efendi explains, clocks and watches had penetrated the Ottoman Empire long before the revolutions of twentieth century, during an era when modernity and religion coexisted through the mediation of a special configuration. İrdal describes in detail his father’s pocket watch which seems to bring together the seemingly separate worlds of religion and modernity. He calls the pocket watch “a strange contraption”. Equipped with “a compass, a hand that showed the direction of Mecca, and a calendar of universal time that told both existent and nonexistent alaturca and alafranga time,” this post-modern mechanism is so complicated that even Nuri Efendi fails to comprehend, let alone master, its functions.

Later, İrdal serves in the Great War. Following his discharge he returns to Istanbul where, due to the harsh conditions of the armistice period, he has a difficult time surviving. Following a set of weird events İrdal is committed to psychiatric care. He is treated by a certain Dr. Ramiz who sees him at his narrow and depressing office in one of the annexes of the Dolmabahçe Palace. Educated in Vienna as a psychoanalyst, Dr. Ramiz’s scientific knowledge is almost entirely Germanic. Dr. Ramiz is one of those enlightened men who use their prestigious education to look down upon their culture; his fear of missing out on intellectual fashions in western capitals almost turns him into a hater of his country’s culture. He categorically ignores all the knowledge produced by his ancestors. This is how İrdal describes Dr. Ramiz’s fascination with German ideas:

According to Dr. Ramiz, willpower was the one thing that could be placed alongside psychoanalysis, fit to share a life with it, as a king might share his reign with his queen. All the great philosophers spoke of it, which of course meant all the names came flooding in, names that might be seen as will-power embodied: Nietzsche, Schopenhauer . . . and because Dr. Ramiz assumed I had read them all, he would make vague references to their work and apply models drawn from their books to daily life, to his own life, to my life, and to the matters facing our country; and from there we moved on to German music. According to him—later I learned that most people who had studied in Germany were the same—it was mandatory to be as familiar with Beethoven as with the man who lived around the corner.

In order to get out of the psychiatric institution, İrdal needs to convince this Germanophile that there is nothing wrong with him. But that, too, needs a bit of invention and forgery. İrdal revises the content of his dreams so that they fit into the Freudian template used by the doctor. Even in dreams İrdal has to imitate the Europeans so as to escape from the controlling gaze of the state apparatus.

Following his release from the psychiatric institution İrdal meets his ultimate master, Halit Ayarcı, with whom he establishes the Time Regulation Institute following a throwaway comment made by İrdal. While walking around Istanbul he tells Ayarcı and Ramiz about how “no two city clocks ever tell the same time”. They look at the clock in Eminönü and compare it with the one in Karaköy, which leads them to a crucial discovery: namely that between the public clocks of Eminönü and Karaköy there is a difference of twenty five minutes. Ayarcı decides to take advantage of this problem and turn it into a business venture.

Initially the business model of the Institute involves inviting people to special clock-setting stations where the customers can regulate their clocks to the correct time in return for a small fee. But as the business venture grows in size and employs more people, İrdal comes up with more ambitious ideas and introduces a system of fines for citizens who fail to regulate their clocks through the Institute.

Ultimately, while İrdal’s mind is a tissue of transformations shaped by the state apparatus, Tanpinar gives us the luxury of freedom: a freedom to make up our own mind about İrdal as well as modernization.

İrdal’s system of fines —which “specified the collection of five kuruş for every clock or watch not synchronized with any other clock in view, particularly those public clocks belonging to the municipality”— is ingeniously drawn. If one’s timepiece differs from that of any other in the same vicinity then the offender’s fine is doubled.

* * *

İrdal’s winding paths and entrepreneurial schemes reflect his moment in history. Tanpınar’s characters live in times of self invention — in an era when people could come to Ankara or Istanbul and become part of the new modernization machine. This is a time when institutions focusing on various aspects of social life mushroomed in Ankara. Set up by the state, those new institutions (that of History, Language, Anthropology) housed specialists who devoted all their time to inventing a new history and language for the country. A new understanding of history and language attempted to simplify the culture of a multiethnic, multi-religious empire, with mixed results. (One theory went so far as to claim that the first man that ever lived was Turkish in origin. According to the same theory, the Niagara Falls took its name from a Turkish expression, “ne yaygara?”, which roughly means “what’s that noise?”) A new historiography that left out everything related to old culture had begun to be taught at schools. It is in this context of re-invention of history and traditions that we can better understand İrdal’s adventures.

In order to become a reliable member of the institution İrdal needs to be unreliable. His submission to power and its demands makes him an unreliable character. We think he tells the truth, and even when he says he fabricated it, we can never be sure about the extent of his inventions. İrdal uses a strange chronology, reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, while narrating his adventures. He inverts the chronology. He begins at the end, goes back a few years, returns to the beginning and then brings us all the way back to the end. We realize that his mind works non-chronologically. This non-chronology becomes our chronology, just like his untruth becomes our truth.

Tanpınar leaves it to us whether we can take İrdal at his word and accept his sense of time and reality. To some İrdal will appear partly deranged, to others he will come off as an everyman through whom we experience the modernization process. Ultimately, while İrdal’s mind is a tissue of transformations shaped by the state apparatus, Tanpinar gives us the luxury of freedom: a freedom to make up our own mind about İrdal as well as modernization. And it is exactly this trust that Tanpinar puts into his readers which makes The Time Regulation Institute not another political allegory of modernization but the most accomplished of all Turkish comic novels.

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, Sight & Sound, The Millions, the White Review, Index on Censorship, among others. L’Avventura (Macera), his first novel, was published in 2008. Kaya has a PhD in English literature. He is the Los Angeles Review of Books’s Istanbul correspondent and is currently working on his second novel. He blogs at www.kayagenc.net and tweets at @kayagenc

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