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Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar: Saatleri Ayarlama Enstitüsü (The Time Regulation Institute)

When Kemal Atatürk embarked on his modernisation project in Turkey in the 1920s, one of the many areas he changed was time. Prior to that there was limited use of clocks and watches. Most Turks, particularly in rural areas, followed the sun or listened to the muezzin’s call to prayers. There was no need to know exactly what time it was and there were no church clock towers, as there were in many parts of Europe. However, Atatürk wanted his country to be modern and that meant knowing the time. As a result, he had clock towers built across the country so that Turks could know precisely what time it was. This novel satirises this.

We learn early on the main outline of what happens later in the novel. The title tells us that a Time Regulation Institute was created. We also learn early on that our narrator was the deputy director of it and that it has become defunct. We know of some of its key activities. The first is that there are places that you can go to, for a small fee, to have your watch or other timepiece accurately regulated. Secondly, if you were caught with a timepiece that was not telling the correct time, you would be fined. Surprisingly enough, people accepted this with good grace. Thirdly, we know that our narrator wrote a biography of the great Ahmet the Timely, who was the inspiration and patron saint of the Institute. There was only one slight problem. Ahmet did not exist. His lack of existence was challenged.

The rest of the book fills in the details as to how the Institute was founded, how our narrator was involved and why, its success and its downfall. More than half of the book, however, tells the story of the early life of our narrator and, though he mentions the Institute and his interest in watches and clocks on many occasions, it is not till well into the second half of the book that we get any further details.

Our narrator is Hayri Irdal. Irdal has been one of those people who drift through life, with not much happening and showing little initiative. As a child he discovered freedom. The freedom I knew as a child was of a different kind. First, and I think most significantly, it was not something I was given. It was something I discovered on my own one day. For him, freedom meant being without ambition. I never chased after things I didn’t need. I never wore myself out trying to fulfil doomed passions or ambitions. I never longed to be first in my class, or second or twentieth, for that matter.

However, he dates the loss of his freedom to the time he was given a watch as a present by his uncle on the day of his circumcision. My life’s rhythms were disrupted, it would seem, by the watch. There were other time-pieces in the house but none of them worked or, rather, they worked according to their own rules. Perhaps not surprisingly, this watch did not last long and was soon broken. However, it left him with a great desire to take it apart and find out how it worked.

Our hero goes off to college but study does not appeal to him. In a dig at the educations system, he points out that, as he stayed away from college, the teachers could not find any flaws with him, so he was able to pass through the system. He does, however, meet Nuri Efendi.

Nuri Efendi had what is called a time-setting workshop. He repaired watches and clocks. To him a broken or damaged clock was like a sick human being, and while it was natural for man to fall ill, an unregulated clock had no such excuse. To his mind it was a social affront, a mortal sin. It is Nuri who sets him on his life’s path with his remark: We’re losing half our time with unregulated clocks. If every person loses one second per hour, we lose a total of eighteen million seconds in that hour.

But Nuri dies so he works for a local watchmaker but he loses that job when one of his friends steals a watch from the clockmaker. We follow the rest of his not very successful life. His career is not particularly successful. He seems to serve in World War I but the whole incident is glossed over in a couple of lines. He does various odd jobs. He marries twice. His first wife dies. His second wife has two sisters who live with him and he has to keep them, though he has little or no employment. Indeed, he is like Raif, in Sabahattin Ali‘s Kürk Mantolu Madonna (Madonna in a Fur Coat), a victim of his wife and in-laws who see him solely as an open wallet.

He is involved with two institutes. He is director of the Society for Psychoanalysis and accountant for the Spiritualist Society, which gives him contacts and nominal management experience, if not much else. It all changes when he meets Halit Ayarcı.

It is Halit Ayarcı who sets up the Time Regulation Institute and much of the second half of the book is about the Institute and its activities. Tanpınar tells the whole story with an absolutely straight face. There is no overt mocking and no witticisms. Its various idiocies are treated as though they were quite normal. Hayri Irdal does, at times, challenge Halit Ayarcı, but is invariably overruled. Even when Hayri Irdal makes what seems to him to be a not very sensible solution to a problem, Halit Ayarcı jumps on it and implements it. This is the case, for example, with the fines for incorrect timepieces.

The activities of the Institute are, of course, part of the satire, even if told in a strait-laced manner. For example, Halit Ayarcı hires numerous people at the beginning though no-one not only has no idea what they are supposed to do but have no idea what the Institute is supposed to do. The women knit. The men chat and read the paper. Even when there is work, the main criterion for hiring seems to be that the person is known to an existing employee and, as a result, a host of useless people are hired. For example, a man notorious for being lazy, an acquaintance of Hayri Irdal, is hired. He has no job. Halit Ayarcı’s view, however, that in such a large organisation, there is surely a place for someone who does no work whatsoever: perhaps an office to which we can transfer all work that needs to be deferred. Hayri Irdal is surprised when all his old friends and relatives suddenly come out of the woodwork and contact him. Instead of mocking them for having ignored him when he was in difficulties, as we would have done, he is grateful to them for remembering them.

This really is a novel in two parts. The first part, mainly about his early life, is interesting not least because Hayri Irdal is a man who manages to get many things wrong, though he is certainly not the only one in this part of the book. Many of the characters mess up their lives in various ways, primarily financial and romantic. The book really takes off in the second half with the Time Regulation Institute and Tanpınar’s satire of Atatürk’s reforms. The book is probably a bit long and could have been edited somewhat but is still a very fine work.

Publishing history

First published by Dergâh Yayınları in 1962
First published in English by Penguin in 2001
Translated by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe