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.
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***
Copyright © 2013 by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe
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.
“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
“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 twentieth century in any language.” —Guernica
“Laceratingly comic . . . [A] brilliant satire on a modernizing bureaucracy.” —Literary Review
“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
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