The first Turkish book to be translated into English.
THE Time Regulation Institute was originally published in 1962, the year of the author’s death. It is generally regarded as the pinnacle of Ahmet Hamdi Tapinar’s literary career. This is the first Turkish book to be translated into English and published by Penguin Classics and the filter of translation is so fine as to be imperceptible.
Set in the 1930s in Tanpinar’s native Turkey, and almost entirely centred on the city of Istanbul, this book is a sardonic exploration of a country, navigating the narrow straits of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles that separate Europe from Asia, tugged in one direction by the winds of Kemal Ataturk’s modernisation, while pulled in the opposite by the undertow of tradition and history. The cover illustration captures this cleverly with one hand of a ticking clock depicted as the minaret of a mosque.
When approaching this book it helps to understand a little of the history of the time in which it is set. Ataturk was Turkey’s first president and one of the early 20th century’s most charismatic and visionary political reformists. He established Turkey as a secular country, instigated free and fair elections, abolished the Caliphate and the Sharia courts, unified the hitherto fragmented education system, gave equality to women and replaced the Arabic writing system with a new Turkish Latin-based alphabet.
The introduction and control of so many reforms required the creation of a massive bureaucracy, with all the attendant ills inherent in such a system. It is on this canvas that Tanpinar wryly paints his satirical picture of the growing pains of a nation as related through, and reflected by, his unreliable narrator Hayri Irdal.
One of the central conceits of the plot is that inanimate objects are affected by their owners; a borrowed jacket will cause the wearer to embody certain characteristics of the lender, for example, but most importantly and central to the story, watches, clocks and any other timepieces, already being semi-animate objects (they are treated like patients by the watch repairman to whom the narrator is apprenticed in his youth, and his childhood household is ruled over by an eccentric and dictatorial grandfather clock called the Blessed One) are particularly susceptible to the vibrations of transubstantiation (just like Flann O’Brien’s cyclists and their bicycles).
The Time Regulation Institute is established with the insight that, while influenced by their human owners and their whims, these timepieces also exercise a disproportionate level of control over them. Hence the control and coordination of the clockwork of the timepieces is an effective, and indeed necessary, means by which to regulate society. A complex system of fines are put in place to punish those whose clocks or watches run fast or slow.
While there are moments in this book that are laugh-out-loud funny, there are times when the reader becomes mired in long and ploddingly tedious passages about complex family dynasties redolent of some of the more ponderous works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Indeed, this book takes almost as much stamina and perseverance as Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude.
The Time Regulation Institute is rich in analogy and euphemism and I suspect a reader with a greater familiarity of Turkish history might understand certain sub-plots and allusions better than this reviewer.
The decay and disintegration of a once rich and populous household mirrors the decline of the Ottoman Empire. But even though time is inexorably moving forward, the past still refuses to dissipate completely, as in an episode where a dead aunt comes back to life just as she is about to be buried. Poverty and riches are juxtaposed. Uneducated and unsuitable people, like the narrator himself, are put in positions of influence and importance. The protagonist’s life and world are changing.
On one level the story is a comedy of errors. A quest for a mythical jewel, based on an off-hand joke, gets completely out of hand, and sees Idral dragged through protracted and complicated legal proceedings that lead to him being entrusted into the dubious care of a neurotic psychiatrist, who he eventually befriends and adopts as a mentor.
This book is a dense and multi-layered satire on government and bureaucracy and contains many elements of the fantastic, with alchemy, an opium addict, unseen spirits, dream sequences and absurd, surreal and farcical episodes thrown into the mix. If you are a reader who has the inclination and requisite endurance to read Dostoyevsky, or Dickens, then you won’t find The Time Regulation Institute overly taxing; but if you tend to prefer an easy and light-hearted read then you might find this book somewhat challenging.