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The Time Regulation Institute Reader’s Guide

By Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar

The Time Regulation Institute by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar


Questions and Topics for Discussion


Here is the first English translation of Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s satirical masterpiece, The Time Regulation Institute. It offers readers a fascinating look at the artistry of one of Turkey’s greatest novelists, as well as a brilliant take on the ambivalent consequences of modernization.

The Time Regulation Institute takes the form of a fictional memoir written by Hayri Irdal. Though he claims to have never cared much for reading or writing, he feels compelled to tell his life story to honor the memory of his benefactor and beloved friend, Halit Ayarci. Ayarci founded the Time Regulation Institute and, as Hayri says, “plucked me from poverty and despair and made me the person I am today” (p. 4). That person is surely one of the most engaging, inventive, and altogether remarkable narrators in all of literature.

For much of the first half of the novel, Hayri Irdal is tossed by fate from one absurd situation to another. Surrounded by eccentrics, Hayri gets caught up in Seyit Lutfullah’s tireless search for a portal to the other side of reality; in his Aunt’s violent outbursts and vengeful resurrection; in fantastical coffeehouse philosophizing; and in a ridiculous trial concerning the possession of a wonderous diamond that Seyit Lutfullah claimed to have seen during one of his otherworldly visits to the emperor Andronikos. Hayri makes an impassioned speech during the trial that lands him in the Department of Justice Medical Facility, where he is subjected to Dr. Ramiz’s Kafkaesque psychoanalytical methods and told he has a “father complex.” He takes a series of tenuous jobs, ranging from clockmaker’s apprentice to secretary of the Spiritualist Society. He marries, has children, serves in the army, but his life is flustered and aimless—until me meets his benefactor Halit Ayarci.

Halit Ayarci lifts him from poverty and aimlessness, placing him in a position of importance at the Time Regulation Institute and giving him some semblance of purpose. But it is an absurd purpose: creating a bureaucracy that defines its own function, that exists solely to justify its own existence. Its stated goal of synchronizing all clocks and watches, passing laws, creating adages, and levying fines to that effect, hardly makes any sense. And indeed Hayri recognizes the pointlessness of the institute’s work. “We don’t seem to be engaged in meaningful activity,” he argues. To which Ayarci offers an uncannily down-the-rabbit-hole postmodernist reply: “What do you mean by meaningful? Are the meanings we share not plucked from the air at a moment’s notice?” (p. 259).

This exchange underscores the groundlessness of the modern world that Hayri finds so disorienting. Halit repeatedly accuses Hayri of being old-fashioned, of clinging to outmoded ideas of work, truth, purpose, craftsmanship, etc., in a world being rapidly reshaped by mechanization, bureaucracy, and a manipulative, self-serving relationship to reality. The novel is above all a satire about the absurdities and dehumanizing abstractions of the modern world, with Hayri Irdal serving as the hapless victim on whom these absurdities are inflicted.

But the novel is striking not just for its comic brilliance or for its profound insights into the disruptions of modernity. It is remarkable most of all for Tanpinar’s dazzling prose style. Sentences unfold in sinuous coils of multiplying clauses, extended metaphors, hyperbolic exclamations, and an imaginative brio rarely surpassed in modern fiction. Tanpinar was a poet as well as a novelist, and the vividness, inventiveness, and music of his language, even in translation, are remarkable throughout a The Time Regulation Institute, a novel rightly hailed as a tour de force of modern Turkish literature.


Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar (1901–1962) is considered one of the most significant Turkish novelists of the twentieth century. Also a poet, short-story writer, essayist, literary historian, and professor, he created a unique cultural universe in his work, combining a European literary voice with the Ottoman sensibilities of the Near East.

Maureen Freely was born in the United States, grew up in Istanbul, studied at Radcliffe, and now lives in England, where she teaches at the University of Warwick. The author of seven novels, she is the principal translator of the Nobel Prize–winning novelist, Orhan Pamuk.

Alexander Dawe is an American translator of French and Turkish. He lives in Istanbul.

Pankaj Mishra is an award-winning novelist and essayist whose writing appears frequently in the New York Review of Books, Guardian, and London Review of Books.

Q. In your note on the translation, you mention how important the music of language was for Tanpinar, that he was a poet as well as a novelist. Can you give us some idea of how his language sounds in Turkish?

Tanpinar published just one small collection of poetry featuring finely crafted, beautifully cadenced poems full of explosive imagery in which music often mattered as much as meaning. Although perhaps overly stylized and opaque, they are intimate pieces that induce a kind of meditative trance. Tanpinar appreciated both Western and Turkish classical music, and he often tried to capture the essence of the music he loved in his poetry and prose, melding the idea of sound to image—for example the rhythm, melody or mood of a particular Turkish scale might be likened to a distant tower or the sea. We see the same attention to music in his prose but there he draws upon a richer vocabulary, a beautiful blend of often arcane words of Persian and Arabic origin, the very ones Hayri Irdal, our narrator from The Time Regulation Institute, says he skipped over in his early reading. But Tanpinar (and perhaps Hayri, too) relished the sound of many of these words and bemoaned the fact that they were thrown out during the drive to modernize the young republic. In fact, he almost seems to make a point of zeroing in on them in his work, to show us the richness of the Turkish language when it’s firing on all four linguistic cylinders—Ottoman, Persian, Arabic and Modern Turkish.

Q. At the end of the note, you also say the solution to working out the shape and dimensions of The Time Regulation Institute came to Alex in a dream, which seems uncannily appropriate for the kind of novel that this is. Could you say what the dream was about and how it solved the problem?

We’d spent quite some time trying to picture Hayri’s elaborate architectural design for the Time Regulation Institute; initially it didn’t seem to physically make much sense and we wondered if that was the point: the building was some kind of incomprehensible model of Hayri’s imagination gone wild. So we decided to sleep on it. In the morning, Alex had a vague sense of having seen the institute in a dream. It was Muburak, the Blessed One, the beloved grandfather clock of Hayri’s childhood! But—strangely, and perhaps impossibly—it also suggested a mosque. The image had faded by the time he woke up but after discussing the dream and working through the description together, we realized that the solution was really quite simple: all we needed was a change of perspective. Hayri was describing the structure from a top-down, bird’s-eye view, seeing the full face of a clock from the air, the clock pavilions representing the different hours. Nevertheless, it is still difficult to fully imagine this complex and paradoxical marriage of old and new, east and west, and that maybe is the way it should be—an unachievable, Escher-like structure, more of an ideal than an actual reality.

Q. Which chapter did you most enjoy translating? How satisfied are you with the English version of the novel? How have Turkish readers responded to the translation?

We had the most fun with the comedic episodes—when Hayri’s Aunt rises from the dead, for example, or when Dr. Ramiz drills Hayri on the importance of will power—and then there are the wonderful descriptions of Hayri’s friends, such as Nuri Efendi, Lutfullah and Abdüsselam. There is a beautiful description of Nuri in his time workshop, carefully working on his almanac, surrounded by all the different timepieces, “as if waiting for their time to rule the world.” Lutfullah’s descriptions of his travels to the world beyond the curtain are truly lovely. And Hayri’s short-lived collaboration with his son on the institute itself is as absurd as it is sublime.

Q. You say that Tanpinar was heavily criticized in literary circles as “old-fashioned and irrelevant,” a charge that is made several times against the novel’s hero, Hayri Irdal, as well. To what extent is Hayri an extension of Tanpinar?

We suppose Tanpinar related to Hayri in many different ways. Tanpinar was locked in a bitter battle with intellectuals who, in the early years of the republic, were relentlessly set on promoting a pure Turkish purged of words of Persian and Arabic origin. But the project made little sense as many commonly used words were not of Turkic origin. It would be something akin to a native speaker of English insisting that the word façade (of French origin) should forcibly be replaced with the word “skein” (a word of Middle English origin), for the sake of preserving and perpetuating a monolithic cultural or national identity. There is also no doubt that Tanpinar would have related to Hayri’s refusal to entirely dismiss the past. Tanpinar always actively promoted a blend of past and present, a synthesis of the two worlds, as well a balance of Eastern and Western attitudes and sensibilities. That said, Hayri is a bit of a fool, and Tanpinar offers us many jokes at his expense. Perhaps it is best to think of him as Tanpinar’s jester. He is always getting things wrong. He makes outrageous excuses for himself. He is tragically gullible, and yet, at the end of the day, he is a narrator we can love and trust.

Q. The Time Regulation Institute seems at times to echo the absurdism of Kafka and Beckett and even the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Who were Tanpinar’s biggest influences?

Tanpinar’s poetic voice was very much informed by French symbolists and he closely read the work of Paul Valery, a man of letters whom he admired for both his dynamism and his intellectual breadth. He also was a big fan of Aldous Huxley and James Joyce. Some of his short stories eerily echo stories in Dubliners and a dramatic suicide in his novel A Mind at Peace is clearly modeled after one in Huxley’s Point Counter Point. He was probably inspired by Huxley’s flare for uproariously funny dramatic episodes as well as his interest in capturing music in word. Tanpinar cites a sea change in his literary work after discovering Western classical music; he was equally interested in replicating musical forms in the novel—the four main sections of A Mind at Peace are modeled on the classic four movements of a symphony—as well as capturing the ephemeral, oneiric nature of music in his prose. In his short story Summer Rain he intricately describes the music of Debussy in a series of cascading, vibrant images.

No one writing about bureaucracy in the twentieth century could claim not to have been influenced by Kafka. And no one writing about time in that century would forget to refer back to Henri Bergson. The main thing to remember is that Tanpinar was deeply influenced by, and in perpetual conversation with European literary and intellectual culture. He was not a magical realist, but like the Latin Americans who would go on to define that tendency in the later decades of the century, hethought of Paris as the center of the world.

  1. What motivates Hayri Irdal to write his memoirs, even though he announces in the first sentence that he “never cared much for reading or writing” (p. 3)? Does he succeed in honoring his friend and benefactor Hayri Ayarci?

  2. How does Hayri’s life change over the course of the novel? What are the most serious (and at the same time absurdly comic) troubles that beset him? How does he react to these challenges?

  3. The Time Regulation Institute is an unusual, unconventional novel. Instead of a clear plot that builds narrative momentum, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar relies on a loosely connected episodic structure. In what way is this appropriate to the fictional memoir the novel presents? What are the pleasures of reading a novel structured in this way?

  4. How would you describe the kind of humor that permeates The Time Regulation Institute?What are some of the novel’s funniest moments?

  5. Tanpinar’s sentences as well as his sensibility are brilliantly inventive. He has a particular gift for hyperbole and for striking metaphors. For example: “With each sip, and indeed with each new glass, I saw the woes that had so oppressed me taking flight, as the daybreak call to prayers might startle a murder of crows from the treetops in the mosque courtyard, dispatching them to far-flung lands, never to return” (p. 222). Why are sentences like this such a joy to read? What do they contribute to the overall texture of the novel?

  6. Why is Hayri sent to the Department of Justice Medical Facility to undergo psychoanalysis with Dr. Ramiz? What are the most absurd aspects of Dr. Ramiz’s methods? Is there any truth to his assertion that Hayri suffers from a “father complex?”

  7. Hayri berates the watchmaker who had tried to fix Halit Ayarci’s watch: “This wasn’t made on a factory line. It was painstakingly crafted by hand! It’s a letter from one master craftsman to another, but clearly it wasn’t written for you!” Hayri points to the designs on the engraved on the inside of the front cover and says: “It truly grieves me to see a craftsman’s place usurped by a merchant” (p. 204–205). In what ways does this passage illustrate the changes modernity was bringing to a world once dominated not by commerce and mechanization but by craftsmen and craftsmanship? Why does Hayri lament the loss of this world so profoundly? What role has the advent of clocks and watches played in this change?

  8. The self-serving and self-justifying proliferation of modern bureaucracy is an obvious satirical target of The Time Regulation Institute. What other aspects of modern life does the book satirize?

  9. Halit Ayarci chides Hayri for being an old-fashioned idealist. He goes on to say: “Being a realist does not mean seeing the truth for what it is. It is a question of determining our relationship to the truth in a way that is most beneficial for us” (p. 233). What are the implications of these differing ways of seeing “the truth?” Does Halit Ayarci’s position anticipate a postmodernist critique of straightforward notions of what is true? Or is his comment simply a bit of self-serving sophistry?

  10. What is the irony of the Time Regulation Institute being saved, at the last minute, by Halit Ayarci succeeding in having it placed in a state of “permanent liquidation?”

  11. Hayri is surrounded by a cast of eccentric characters—Nuri Efendi, Seyit Lutfullah, Dr. Ramiz, Sabriye Hanim, Cemal Bey, Halit Ayarci, his wife Pakize, and many others. What makes these characters so engaging and entertaining? What do they add to the novel?

  12. When Hayri tells Halit “we don’t seem to be engaged in meaningful activity,” Halit responds: “We are indeed engaged in work, and work that is vital. Work is a matter of mastering one’s time, knowing how to use it. We are paving the way for such a philosophy. We’ll give our people a consciousness of time. We’ll create a whole new collection of adages and ideas, and spread them all over the country. We shall declare that man is first and foremost a creature who works, and that work itself is time. Is this not a constructive thing to do” (p. 259)? How would you answer this question? Is it constructive to declare that man is above all a creature who works and that work itself is time? Has Halit Ayarci’s prediction come true?

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