There’s a moment in The Time Regulation Institute, the novel by acclaimed Turkish author Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, where the protagonist Hayri Irdal explains the system of fines he has put in place to regulate all the clocks of Istanbul. Facing budget shortages, he proposes a system of discounts that reward multiple offenders by reducing the amount of the fine on the second and third offense. As Hayri puts it, “What kind of enterprise does not seek to extend discounts to its regular customers?” Instead of being met with skepticism, the system is embraced by the public who would “stop our inspectors in the street and ask to be fined.”
Such is the absurdity underlying much of The Time Regulation Institute (Saatleri Ayarlama Enstitütü). As any expat who has experienced Turkish bureaucracy can tell you, at times dealing with officialdom in this city can amount to something bordering on Kafka-esque. The Time Regulation Institute, originally written in 1962 but currently enjoying a renaissance due to a fresh English language translation by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, is a biting satire of the rapid modernisation and subsequent bureaucratic systems that accompanied the arrival of the Turkish Republic in the early twentieth century.
Acting as a memoir, the book follows Hayri Irdal, a downtrodden but optimistic nobody whose life seems to amount to nothing more than one big series of unfortunate events. From early childhood his life is anchored by clocks and time; an antique grandfather clock nicknamed the ‘Blessed One’ looms over his family home and a wristwatch gifted for his tenth birthday signifies the ‘end of his freedom’. Hayri’s one achievement is acting as an assistant to a local watch repairman, but his life hits a new low when he is placed in a psychiatric hospital following a particularly absurd incident surrounding a precious diamond that may or may not actually exist.
Everything changes when he meets Halit Ayarcı, an entrepreneur who embodies the spirit of the modern Turkish man. Halit takes a shining to Hayri, whose interest in clocks gives him the idea for a brand new enterprise that will revolutionize the way the country interacts with its timepieces. Thus the Time Regulation Institute is born, with the brief to ensure that every clock, watch and timepiece in Turkey is on time. The Institute becomes the toast of Istanbul, and Hayri finds himself the talk of the town. He even becomes a renowned author, writing a memoir of ‘Ahmet Efendi the Timely’, purported to be the inspiration for the Institute despite having never existed.
Although the creation of the Institute doesn’t happen until well over halfway into the book, the lead-up to the event provides a wonderful insight into life in the early Turkish Republic. Tanpınar has a lot of fun with the revolving door of characters he’s created, who appear and reappear throughout the course of Hayri’s life, not unlike so many of the local meyhanes or coffeeshops in Istanbul that still exist to this day. Most of the supporting characters are more than willing to sign up for jobs at the Institute, despite having dismissed Hayri as a good-for-nothing nobody during his formative years.
As the Institute grows in popularity things get even more absurd, lifting the characters into the stratosphere of Istanbul’s bourgeoisie. And yet somehow Hayri is the only one to see it for what it is. But by that point it’s too late – everyone has already left him behind. In some ways it even bears resemblance to another seminal novel of the twentieth century, the Great Gatsby. The lavish parties, the unassuming character sucked into a world of untruths and hedonism, at first naïve but then involved himself. There’s always the underlying feeling that it’s all a house of cards, waiting to be knocked down at any moment.
But the book is most successful when it’s parodying the rapid modernisation of the time, and the absurdities that came along with it. It’s rarely laugh-out-loud funny, but the situations Hayri gets himself into are a pitch perfect satire of a time when Atatürk was revolutionizing the way Turks lived, spoke, dressed and adhered to time – whether they liked it or not. Upon setting up the institute, Hayri and Halit hire the majority of the staff from their circle of friends and family, and are wondering what to do with them: “We’ll find a way. Everyone will have to come up with work based on the name of the position they are given.” Not long after meeting Halit for the first time, Hayri is taken to a restaurant where he meets a great man – we never find out exactly who it is, although it’s a not-so-subtle metaphor for Atatürk. Here is the symbol of Hayri’s modernisation (Halit), on first-name terms with the symbol for Turkey’s modernisation as a whole.
The book is best suited to those familiar with Turkish culture – although the lively translation is packaged with some helpful notes, the Turkish idioms and names can be confusing at times. Tanpınar inserts jokes on many levels that only reveal themselves to those with some knowledge of Turkish – Halit Ayarcı’s name literally translates to “Timeless Regulator”.
Despite Hayri’s best efforts to control it, time is a fluid concept in the book. Tanpınar spends pages on diversions that leave you wondering what on earth is going on, before eventually pulling it all back into the story. Sometimes the narrative jumps forward two years for a page and then returns with little warning. At times it can be confusing but as a literary device it works wonders; after all, this is a memoir of someone who treats time with such world-weariness.
At its heart The Time Regulation Institute debates the assumption that a society must modernise and rationalise in order to improve its citizens’ happiness. The success of the West in the post-industrialisation years has led to an assumption that secularism and westernisation is the best route for all civilisations. But as Hayri is elevated into the upper echelons of the Western-looking upper class of Istanbul, does his life actually improve? That’s a debate that Turkey is still having to this day, over 90 years since the founding of the Republic. The Time Regulation Institute is a fascinating window into a very different Istanbul, with lessons that are still extremely pertinent. It might not be the easiest read around, but this is one book that is worth making the time for.