Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar – Turkish Joyce and Proust in one: a group of westernized intellectuals in 1930s Istanbul drift through the city in a permanent state of ennui, seemingly caught between the past and the present, tradition and modernity, the East and the West
"The greatest novel ever written about Istanbul." — Orhan Pamuk
"The Turkish Ulysses... Tanpinar’s great novel also unfolds over 24-hours, but in Istanbul on the eve of World War II. Turkey is torn between East and West just as Mümtaz, an orphan and aspiring writer of historical fiction, is torn between a decaying tradition and his love for the older, divorced Nuran, whose failings and attractions are entirely modern." - Joshua Cohen
"A Mind at Peace, originally published in 1949, is a Turkish Ulysses and a poetic homage to Istanbul. A historical novel of ideas as well as a love story set in the "city of two continents," a Turkish parliamentary leader chose Tanpinar's chef d'ouevre to present to President Obama so that he "might better understand the Turkish people... and in it find the nuances of our culture and our identity.
Mümtaz has survived the childhood trauma of his parents' untimely deaths in the early skirmishes of World War I as well as the tumultuous cultural revolutions following the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the early Turkish Republic. He takes refuge in the fading past, immersing himself in literature and music, even as he faces an uncertain future with his beloved, Nuran. Can their love save them both from the turbulent times, or will inner obsessions, along with powerful social and political forces, tear the couple apart?"
"Originally published in 1949, Tanpinar's sweeping literary masterpiece is a love story of his native Turkey and of the flesh. As Turkish culture shifts from its traditional roots to a more modernized society in the 1930s, protagonist Mümtaz seeks to preserve the past. After his parents' untimely death, he becomes a devotee of Turkish literature under the tutelage of his cousin and mentor, Ihsan. Mümtaz is like a figure in a novel, confronted by tragedy at a young age, ensuring that its effects would always afflict him and perhaps that is why he chooses to focus on a disappearing past. He soon falls in love with Nuran, an unattainable woman with a complicated background. Mümtaz believes that his love for Nuran will be enough to save them both from the changing times and protect them from disaster. Tanpinar's lyricism and resonant plot will leave U.S. readers wondering why they've had to wait so long to read this exquisite novel." - Publishers Weekly
"ISTANBUL - The guards at Topkapi Palace looked at me in surprise when I asked them the whereabouts of the Alay Kosku - the exhibition pavilion where, according to what I had read in the newspaper Zaman, a museum named for the Turkish writer Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar had recently opened. Eventually, it was one of the clerks in the palace museum shop who directed me to the fancy building with the rounded-pointed roof in the back of the Topkapi garden, with a steep mound leading to its entrance. Only there, after the strenuous climb, was it possible to read clearly the sign stating that this was indeed the museum designed to celebrate Turkish writers in general, and hallow the name of Tanpinar specifically, a writer who died in 1962 and whose standing in the history of Turkish literature is akin to that of Agnon's in Hebrew literature. Except that Tanpinar did not win a Nobel Prize.
It was Tanpinar's misfortune to be a writer in a language that has always had bad PR outside its own country. Precious few can appreciate the subtlety of the Turkish poetry written in the courts of the sultans during the same era as that of European Baroque poetry. Even fewer know that a national-romantic genre of poetry developed in Turkey concurrent with the national-romantic poetry of the Continent, and that it also had elements of symbolism and Dadaism and surrealism. And that, along with the emergence of realistic fiction in Europe, Turkey had its own Chekhov in the guise of short-story writer Sait Faik Abasiyanik, whose house on the little island of Burgaz in the Sea of Marmara serves today as a museum in his memory. And so on.
Truth be told, until writer Orhan Pamuk came along, and until the Nobel in literature that he received a half-dozen years ago brought Turkish literature into global awareness - Tanpinar's name would also not have stood a chance of being known beyond the borders of his country. For Pamuk declared on every occasion that his spiritual father, and the person to whom he owed his talent, was Tanpinar, the father of modernism in the Turkish novel - the writer who combined in his great novel, "A Mind at Peace," the emotional storminess of Dostoevsky with the refined artificiality and cruel psychological analysis of Marcel Proust.
The protagonists of Tanpinar's books wage a daily war on time, in the sense that they are incapable of adjusting to modernity and are frozen in molds that prevent them from being free. This is indeed the subject of Tanpinar's other famous book, "The Time Regulation Institute," a revered work in Turkey, a book of many riddles. As one reads it, one sees that while the novel mocks bureaucracy, it also tells the tragic story of Turkey, a land that has never managed to keep up with global times, and either falls behind or runs after them breathlessly.
What could a museum of literature possibly have to show? Literature, after all, is not something that can be locked up behind the panes of a display case. What can be displayed - and indeed this is precisely what you see - are literary "fetishes": Tanpinar's top hat, his glasses, his pens and his manuscripts in Ottoman Turkish - for he lived much of his life before the Arabic alphabet in Turkey was replaced by Latin characters. Each of the decorative, high-ceilinged halls in this museum, covered in wood paneling, are devoted to another canonical writer, including of course Pamuk, who has been honored with an impressive bust installed beside the display case that holds all of his books in their various translations (although I did not see Hebrew there ).
It was moving to see the respect accorded here to the German-Jewish scholar Erich Auerbach, in the form of a glass cabinet full of manuscripts. Auerbach was the author of the seminal book of literary theory "Mimesis," which he wrote in exile in Istanbul in the 1930s. He was one among an entire community of Nazi-persecuted scholars whom Turkey welcomed with open arms in those years. It is doubtful whether there are many in Israel today who know anything about Turkey's contribution to saving Jewish intellectuals in those terrible times.
In the basement are displayed original copies of the early works of the great communist poet Nazim Hikmet, and copies of the journals he published with his comrades in the anti-fascist underground in Turkey. These underground editions were printed on cheap paper, which has now yellowed. As the Germans advanced toward Turkey and the country's relations with the Third Reich warmed up, Hikmet raised his voice in protest - and was thrown in jail; his leftist friends were sentenced to forced labor in Turkey's hinterland. Hikmet himself was ultimately banished from his country and his writings banned there. He died brokenhearted in Moscow, in 1963, after writing beautiful homesick poems about the beloved Istanbul he was never to see again.
Between the pages of these journals are hidden some of the things Hikmet and his friends wrote, from the depths of their hearts and souls, in condemnation of Turkey's anti-Semitic and racist policies at the time. Those were indeed dark days, in which a property tax was levied on Jews and others "who are not Turks" at an impossible rate that was designed to bankrupt them. Whoever could not afford to pay was sent to perform forced labor in country's east. So this, too, is a little-known fact: that there were those who put themselves and their freedom at risk to protest this discriminatory policy.
Since I was the sole visitor to the museum, the docents swooped down on me. When I told one of them that I was from Israel, she passed the rumor along from hall to hall and from floor to floor. In my honor they called in the guy who is in charge of the cafeteria. He opened it up for me, and there they sat me down and served me tea." - Benny Ziffer
"Every page is full of sharp insights into human nature, delivered with a linguistic confidence that cracks like a whip and warms one from the inside with a glow of recognition—the recognition that no matter how far away we think we might be from one another in time and space, we are all distilled from the very same mixture of passion and compassion, intelligence and foolishness."—Ugur Akinci
"In his novel A Mind at Peace, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar asks if it’s possible for a culture that is tied so closely and intimately to its past to survive in a trying time of change. The novel begins in Istanbul the morning of the declaration of World War II and ends with the same announcement, framing the story while we learn about several characters whose lives are marked by events that test their existence and define what it is to be human. A Mind at Peace centers on the life of a man named Mümtaz whose life is surrounded by these characters in a deeply moving portrait as he grows from a child to a young man.
Tanpınar’s novel is set up in four parts, each titled as a character in the novel: İhsan, Nuran, Suad, Mümtaz. The sections of İhsan and Mümtaz act as end plates where the story takes place in the present, holding the past that Nuran and Suad represent.
In Part I, we learn about Mümtaz, the people in his life, and his feelings toward humanity. After the loss of his mother and father when Mümtaz is a child, he goes to live with İhsan, his paternal cousin. İhsan acts as both father and mentor to Mümtaz, sending him to school in France for two years and later on his return, continuing his education under İhsan’s instruction, nurturing his intellectual life in literature, history, and social events. This teaching becomes a backbone for Mümtaz, learning about his self-identity as a Turk in a time when the Ottoman Empire is facing dissolution. The novel continues with historical references and the music and poetry of Turks, which is recited or sung at social gatherings and within the characters, but most significantly within Mümtaz.
A central moment in Mümtaz’s life takes place in Part II when he meets Nuran on a passage over the Bosphorus. In this section, we learn about Nuran and the relationship that ensues between her and Mümtaz. For Mümtaz, this is a moment in his life when “he acknowledged for the first time how sentimental he let himself be.” Mümtaz knew Nuran’s story, her husband’s infidelity, her unhappiness, and Mümtaz, “through a compassion that rose up within him, promised to bring her happiness, for as long as he lived.” Tanpınar’s master storytelling shows two people at the beginning of their relationship, the way they carry themselves physically and emotionally in shyness and in eagerness:
The Music of Silence existed in both, rising to their faces from deep within, and Nuran, frantic to suppress it, appeared more crestfallen than she actually was, while in contrast, Mümtaz, yearning to mask the shyness of his character, forced himself to be bolder and more carefree.
Through this relationship, Mümtaz discovers himself and learns more about his history through the music of Istanbul. A song that plays throughout the novel, “Song in Mahur” is Nuran’s family heirloom. When Mümtaz hears this song from Nuran it is through her singing that Mümtaz feels himself more connected with his past. The relationship between Mümtaz and Nuran becomes one in which their conversation dwells mainly on the current issues of modernization and the importance of keeping their history in mind. Mümtaz believes that to know their history is to know Istanbul, therefore, “if we don’t truly know Istanbul, we can never hope to find ourselves.” As Mümtaz further explains:
Our attachments to the past are also part of these social realities, because those attachments constitute one of the manifest forms our life has taken, and this persists into the present as well as the future.
Their self-identity is tied to the country they are from, but since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, modernization is taking over the country and the natives are trying to adapt to the new. When Mümtaz does a task like furnishing his and Nuran’s apartment, he notices how every sofa shop contains furniture of every “sort and style,” displaying Istanbul’s “changing standards of taste and lifestyle.”
As the music is sung and remembered throughout the novel, it seems it is the only thing that remains within the natives, as a remembrance of their history and their identity. Nuran feels differently, however, “growing tired of Mümtaz’s life and thoughts. The anxiety that he’d been confined to an absolute idea, to an orbit of sterility that took him outside of existence gnawed at him like a worm. It represented a vein of decay that would only grow with time.”
It is expected that this love between Mümtaz and Nuran be put into question: “At times, he attributed their state of satiety and lunacy to the exuberance induced by Ottoman music.” Mümtaz is continually questioning his love with Nuran, and his idea of her is something within his imagination that he ties to their culture. When Mümtaz is faced with reality, he finds himself distraught by humanity. In Part III, Suad enters. A former lover of Nuran’s and ailing from a liver disease, he writes Nuran a letter, expressing his discontent without Nuran in his life. It is Suad’s entrance into the story when Mümtaz feels humanity is harmful. This letter runs through Mümtaz’s memory and leaves him wondering and soon expecting the demise of his relationship with Nuran. Mümtaz sees humankind as “the enemy of contentment [that] struck wherever happiness appeared or made its presence felt.” For Mümtaz, it is hard to be happy in a world that is changing, a world in which the contingencies of life seem to prevent complete happiness. “Humanity couldn’t be fully content; this was impossible. What with thought, settling accounts, and anxiety. Especially anxiety. Humans are creatures of anxiety and fear.” Suad tests Mümtaz, a man of constant worry who lives within his thoughts and his ideas on history and change, and his ability to hold on to Nuran, while the current times move closer to modernization and Mümtaz is forced to question his own life. At one point he comes to this realization, realizing that his loss of his parents at an early age had “instilled the tendency to think and feel this way, to consider everything he cherished as far away,” a distance which makes it impossible for him to hold on to Nuran in the present.
In Part VI, we learn how Mümtaz has slowly been adjusting to several changes, his own belief on humanism changing, but one wonders if this new thought is for the good or better of Mümtaz’s own existence. What we believe about humanism is put into question as we see the change in Mümtaz, and here Tanpınar plucks at our inner selves, expressing what we are either incapable of expressing or are too fearful to admit. Tanpınar’s beautifully descriptive narrative expresses what is at the center of a human being, and what the human spirit strives to attain." - Emily Shannon
"Istanbul's inhabitants have called it "the city of two continents," part of it lying in Europe and part in Asia, with the waters of the Bosphorus joining them. Or separating them.
Which, though? The question is about national identity, not geography. Turkey has struggled with the question, certainly since Kemal Atatürk overthrew the Ottoman sultans in the early 1900s and imposed a Westernizing rule over an Eastern culture that remains part resistant and unassimilated to this day.
The theme has been famously treated by the novelist Orhan Pamuk. His "Snow" displays an indisputably Westernized writer's painful doubts about a century of forced transformation; one that not only remains stuck halfway but also, along with its benefits, has supressed some of the richness of the older heritage.
It is also the theme of Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar's honeyed, searching and melancholy epic, written in the 1940s and only now translated into English. "A Mind at Peace" is far more elusive and diffuse than Pamuk's work. Much of it is difficult to gain access to for a non-Turkish reader, with its reams of talk about varieties of traditional music, and involved weighings of Turkish writers from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The translation suggests English spoken with a foreign accent, and it lurches with oddity. This of course is a difficulty; at the same time, it has the transporting quality of such an accent, imparting in the reader the heartbeat of an unfamiliar world.(Would we even remember Marlene Dietrich if she'd spoken Oxbridge English?)
In any case, Tanpinar (1901-1962) has produced a work that, despite its long and (to us) obscure side trips, creates a portrait of a city and a culture -- Istanbul on the eve of World War II -- that seems like the land of Cockaigne, magical and lost. His novel is as much about its setting and colors (the green of an Emerald City) as about the stories and wonderfully eccentric and varied panoply of characters.
The play of sun on water, the Bosphorus ferries that ply back and forth to villa-studded islands, the lights that star its shores, the glint of bluefish netted at night, are also characters. At one point, the lovers at the center of the book reflect that these things, quite as much as each other, are the heart of their aching, doomed summer affair.
Doomed because Mumtaz, a young intellectual besotted with Baudelaire and weightless cogitating; and Nuran, an older woman from an established family and divorced, perhaps temporarily, from a faithless husband, come to represent Turkey's East-West divide. The life and artistry that Tanpinar gives to the ardor and fragility of their affair occupy his book's middle section, which stands as one of the 20th century's notable literary love stories and cultural watersheds.
Take their first meeting, on one of the ferries that these two privileged figures take in the course of their excursions. Passion lights up Mumtaz with romantic exhilaration and infinite, unattached possibilities. Nuran, with her scars from a once-loving marriage and her immense complexity of family obligations, feels darkened.
"Am I to once more pass over roads that I've already traveled? Is there a torment greater than this? Why are men so selfish? Why is it that they think we women are as free as they?" she reflects. "And she absolutely had to get new shoes." Around Mumtaz and Nuran is an unforgettably portrayed entourage of relatives and friends. There is Nuran's ancient cavalier of an uncle, a onetime Atatürk lieutenant who displays the varied refinement -- connoisseur, musician, gallant -- of a 19th century Ottoman aristocrat.
There is a hypochondriac brother who takes a separate drug for each of his organs: together they resemble "a governmental cabinet whose seats were occupied by ministers of different ideologies and parties." For a childlike young friend, "[c]ountless days stretched before her, and she dressed them in her hopes like little puppets." On the other side, there is Mumtaz's cousin and mentor, an interminable spinner of advanced political theories; and a clutch of would-be Europeanized friends who spend their days sitting in cafes and prescribing remedies for their country and the world. Neither one will pay any attention: the Second World War is about to break out.
East and West reach a climactic counterpoint in a stunning if immensely prolonged account of a musical evening. A revered master of ancient Turkish forms performs in a traditional style that shuns originality and stresses the religious devotion of repetition. When Nuran joins in the old chants as Mumtaz watches, it marks the rising tide of their separation.
Tanpinar's masterpiece has been compared to Joyce's "Ulysses." It bears some resemblance: in its young, questioning hero exploring himself as he explores a city, in the futile cafe speculations of second-rate intellectuals in a country on the margins of Europe and in its partial use of a stream-of-consciousness.
The likeness is relatively superficial. If "A Mind at Peace" has a parallel, it is in the infinitely suggestive, distant and fading world of the great Greco-Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy, whose civilization likewise bore the imprints, though far more distant and faded, of an Ottoman heritage with universal inklings." - Richard Eder
"A Mind at Peace, published in 1949 and set in 1938 and 1939, has long been a cornerstone of Turkish literature, a symbol of the nation’s conflict between the modernizing forces of the West and the traditional Ottoman and Turkish cultures. Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar’s novel is a readily confessed major influence on Orhan Pamuk, the 2004 Nobel Laureate, and it was also in the news recently, as the Turkish government bestowed an English copy upon President Barack Obama during an official visit.
With such an illustrious history, it’s not as if A Mind at Peace has languished outside English. It is a national classic, and for good and obvious reasons: Tanpınar’s novel is a vivid and profound evocation of the pulse and pace of Istanbul and the Bosphorus. It tells the story of a young man named Mümtaz, whose parents died in the vast upheavals in Turkey after the First World War, and the book’s skill in rendering not only the details but the spirit of Turkey between the wars compares well with other, roughly contemporary novels of cities, flâneurs, and rich intellectual passions (for instance, Joyce’s work). The book’s achievement is a rightful source of national pride, yet its translation into English is of considerable significance and value for more reasons than its native importance or comparative interest.
The belated translation of A Mind at Peace imbues the book with an aura of fresh discovery, as if one were reading in its time, in its consciousness of world events and literary currents, rather than in our own. Self-consciously in dialogue with the titans of late nineteenth- and early 20th-century European literature—Gide, Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, among others—these names run across the page seemingly disencumbered of the sixty years separating the Turkish and English publications of the novel. The sense of intellectual and temporal dislocation that results is an arresting and thrilling experience.
This sense of dislocation is not in the least alienating: in fact, there is much in the novel that threatens to shade too far into the familiar. Tanpınar focuses the novel softly on the earnestly thoughtful Mümtaz, whom he gives a full roster of Big Question interior monologues. These make A Mind at Peace a bildungsroman, but only just—its peripheries are too well-defined, its minor characters too independent to satisfy the unity demanded by a novel of formation. Further undercutting some of the pretensions inherent in the bildungsroman genre is Tanpınar’s occasional use of a blunt authorial self-awareness: not very far in, for instance, he puts Mümtaz in his place: “Like a figure in a novel, he’d confronted tragedy at a young age, ensuring that its effects would always afflict him. . . . Like a leitmotif, the vision of a first instance of consciousness lost embellished these dreams . . .”
After Mümtaz’s parents died following World War I, he lived with his cousin İhsan, who was a tremendously good influence on him—or, as Mümtaz says fondly, İhsan saved him from certain “inaugural experiences of decadence.” İhsan teaches in Mümtaz’s school and guides his intellectual development, shepherding him toward French poetry—symbolists, surrealists—and Turkish history. Mümtaz also grows up into a life of teaching and writing—throughout much of the novel he is at work on a novel of his own on the life of Shaykh (or şeyh) Galip, a late 18th-century Ottoman poet and master of a genre sometimes known as mystic romance.
Mümtaz becomes involved with a gorgeous young divorcée, Nuran, and their headlong dalliance suffuses the sunny middle third of the book. Society intervenes as it must, but Tanpınar orchestrates with great dexterity the tiny social ploys which the lovers’ jealous, disapproving, and selfish friends use to draw them apart. A tragedy occurs that crushes their fading hopes, and Mümtaz finds himself wandering at oblique, despondent angles through the streets of Istanbul, further disoriented when his cousin İhsan is taken suddenly ill with pneumonia. The imminence of a second world war has the city itself on edge, as Turkey is unsure to what extent it can or should avoid participation in what all fear will be another round of utter devastation.
This global historical backdrop is of considerable importance to the novel, although its influence on the plot and characters is more of an immersive, rather than a direct nature. Turkey is on the cusp of a new identity—İhsan, Mümtaz, and Suad, one of Mümtaz’s jealous friends, talk of little else. Europe’s instability is a grave threat to this enterprise—Turkey would modernize, but its models are running away from it toward mutual devastation. And the problem is not just political: throughout the novel, the world of the intelligentsia finds itself caught between the desire to emulate European forms—of music, poetry, even of the art of living—and the intuition that these forms can only be corrosive, never constructive.
The originality in Tanpınar’s approach is that he conceives the clash of cultures not to be one of incompatible identities but of incompatible speeds, like records playing in different rotation. The issue is not so much a rejection of culture-integration or a belief that assimilation is undesirable; rather there is a sense that caution must be used to sync up the different cultural speeds. This project is imperiled by the increasingly self-destructive tendencies of Western Europe: on a trip through a ramshackle bookstore, its inventory essentially the remainders and overstocks of other civilizations, Mümtaz diagnoses an acute case of “intellectual indigestion.” Much later, İhsan will tell him, “A surplus of half-dead worldviews lie in wait to interfere in modern life. On the other hand our engagement with the modern and the West amounts to emptying into that gushing river as an afterthought.”
Yet while Tanpınar is preternaturally aware of the perils of this situation, he is not able entirely to avoid succumbing to them. Tanpınar’s difficulty with finding a way to import Western models into his novel at the right velocity is not just didactic or illustrative; it is also frequently unintentional, and it threatens to pass the “intellectual indigestion” along.
Such clumsiness is apparent in a sentence like, “To admire Debussy and Wagner yet to live the ‘Song in Mahur’ was the fate of being a Turk,” which is Mümtaz’s way of stating the problem facing Turkish intellectuals. In stating it so, the intellectual problem becomes not the difficulty of finding common ground between Turkish ballads and Western music, but in first finding a common ground between the bombast of Wagner and the intricacies of Debussy, or even between France and Germany (Gide and Goethe will be paired together later), particularly at this date. While he speaks merely of admiring (and indeed many people do admire both Debussy and Wagner), there is a consistent lumping of European culture into a general, indistinguishable mass that can be enjoyed or rejected indifferently. The soul that tries to bridge East and West must first acknowledge a bit of a gap between Romanticism and Modernism, or rather an internal conflict that must itself be depicted. One wants some dialectic.
Ultimately, the novel is much larger and better than Mümtaz’s ruminations, but there is nevertheless too much Werther in his words—the reader grows tired of such interjections as, “Maybe art presents us with the most benign faces of death, those that we can acknowledge most easily” or “Our bodies are what we can most easily give to each other; the real challenge is sharing our lives. For a love to be genuine, two people must enter into a mirror and emerge as one soul!” Tanpınar has given us a Hans Castorp, a mind grown a little fuzzy with the feverish excitement of finding universal truths buried in his soul, but unfortunately we are not often provided the counterbalancing influences of a Naphtha or a Settembrini. İhsan occasionally serves this function, and a number of other extraordinarily well-drawn characters have some incredible individual speeches or remarks, but for too much of the book Mümtaz is allowed to soliloquize rather sillily.
This verbal awkwardness is not entirely confined to Mümtaz; from time to time Tanpınar makes use of similes that so bend their images out of shape that they approach malapropisms: “Her voice was peculiar, like a cucumber marinated in mustard” and “He knew quite well that presently his wife’s face was convulsing in a multitude of small tremors like an oyster squirted with lemon.” Yet these instances are fairly rare; Tanpınar generally has considerable command of the narration and is tremendous at characterization.
Unfortunately, the translator, Erdağ Göknar, who has also translated Pamuk, seems to be intent on indulging further these awkward habits of expression. He employs on far too many occasions inapposite Latin expressions—even insisting for no apparent reason on referring to trees by their Latin names (“Platanus orientalis”). None of these expressions appear in the original Turkish, and their use severely stretches the translator’s license: Latin, at least for English speakers, carries a fairly specific connotation, rather like the use of French in Russian novels, and the casualness with which the translator slips it in is distortive. These may be quibbles in another book, but in a novel that is very much about the difficulties of forming coherence from disparate cultural elements, they become slightly more than annoyances.
Most frustrating, however, may be the translation of the title: in Turkish, it is “Huzur,” which does have a wealth of connotations, but which other translators, including Maureen Freely, Pamuk’s primary translator, have rendered as simply “Peace.” Given the novel’s historical backdrop, titling a novel “Peace” sets up a guiding parallel of exterior and interior events, indicating a sustained connection between the protagonist’s mental state and the outside world. The impending war creates a persistent irony in relation to the title, an irony which is also borne out by the fact that Mümtaz can never exactly be said to be seeking “inner peace.” “A Mind at Peace” suggests too strongly a narrative arc that is actually inapt and an individualism which is constrictive and inaccurate.
Yet there is so much in this book that is undisturbed by these problems, and so much that can stand proudly against its contemporaries; it is simply and tremendously good to have this novel in the English language. The following passage is worth quoting in full, as it gives a taste of what has now, finally, become available to an English-speaking audience:
The top of his nightstand held a riot of bottles of every imaginable design, decorated with symbols, some prolixly labeled with allusions to minerals, mythology, and cosmology, while others sufficed with intimation and innuendo, like the titles of poetry collections. Thanks to these bottles and packages, the long shelf of his dresser was as dazzling as an American bar, and when Yaşar spoke of these medications, he used the most hyperbolic language. Instead of saying that he’d taken vitamin C, he’d say, “For eighty-five cents, I bought a million oranges!”In the spirit of Yaşar, it might be apt to point out that for $25, you can now buy a couple hundred thousand beautiful words and more than a few dozen brilliant ideas." - Andrew Seal
"The central character in A Mind at Peace is Mümtaz, and for the most part his mind seems anything but - indeed:
Anxiety in part constituted his inner self, that quiddity resting beneath the surface yet controlling everything.
In times like these - 1939, the world at the brink of war - peace is hard to find. In Turkey, shifting ever farther to the West, yet clinging also to the East, the turbulence of the times seems even more pronounced.
Mümtaz lost his parents when he was young -- in another time of violent restructuring -- , and was raised by his cousin İhsan and his family; when the novel opens İhsan is sick with pneumonia, symptomatic of the uncertainty and menace all around. This is a novel that meanders, and one that's more of ideas than action; İhsan's illness and Mümtaz's love-affair with Nuran (a central part of what plot there is) are as much excuses for grander pronouncements on the human and national condition as anything else. Tanpınar's work is a picture of contemporary Turkey (and, specifically, Istanbul) constantly turning in on itself, constantly trying to define this Turkey -- and its future possibilities.
Mümtaz is working on a piece of historical fiction, set in the eighteenth century -- but, of course, harbouring; "elements of Mümtaz's own life". His concerns about it could apply equally well to A Mind at Peace:
There are too many digressions. I don't want it to be that way. Listening to you talk now, I sensed the need for an organization beyond the synthesis of an ordinary plot structure. Does a novel have to start at one point and end at another ? Maybe it's sufficient if the story line takes life itself as a framework, gathering it around a few characters.
Maybe. But Tanpınar does not make it easy, especially for foreign readers; this is a novel that is through and through Turkish, and relies greatly on references to music, literature, and history. Even what is familiar -- and a great deal is, since it leans on Western music and literature -- can get lost in the connexions, and even what is carefully spelled out and explained can become overwhelming:
If Tevik represented the nineteenth-century Tanzimat era of reform, which set to work with lofty intentions and finished simply with a weakness for everyday pleasures -- he lived in the ease, nonchalance, and pilfered delights of that age -- then Yasar was more like the second constitutional period after 1908, and bore all of its instabilities. He displayed a bewildering idealism, fleeting feelings of inferiority, and rebellions that cast both off like one wave taking another's place; in short, he vacillated between ecstatic enthusiasm and immobilizing despair.
Much of the talk centers around (national, though often in terms of cultural) identity, a concern reflected also in the characters' own uncertainty about themselves or their places. Indeed, there's little sense of certainty, and no absolute answers:
"Okay them go ahead and define the 'Turkey' about which you speak."
İhsan sighed. "That's the crux of the matter. Locating that ..."
"At times I verge on answering this very question.
Most of the main characters are intellectuals, with that usual intellectual problem of being too thought-focussed, and most of the novel does involve these mind-games (and a bit of romance, a different kind of mind-game, but in its emotional root not that far removed from their nationalist feelings) rather than action. They recognise it, to some extent:
The things we read don't lead us anywhere. When we read what's written about Turks, we realize we're wandering on the peripheries of life. A Westerner only satisfies us when he happens to remind us that we're citizens of the world. In short, most of us read as if embarking on a voyage, as if escaping our own identities. Herein rests the problem. Meanwhile, we're in this process of creating a new social expression particular to us.
Tanpınar's works clearly means to provide an alternative: rather than a voyage, the book is completely centered around Turkey itself. It is also almost entirely inward looking, both in its personal stories, and also in how Turkey can be seen.
A Mind at Peace can be frustrating reading. The language is often overwrought, with far too many passages such as:
This Bacchanal of Luminance, both its eulogy and its worship, was constituted by moments of bedazzlement and blaze in which the fire stirred and leapt into flames a thousand times over from its own ashes. It was a Mi'raj of Harmony made by the corporeal in concert with the soul -- such that one sensed the ascension without being cognizant of the heavens to be attained.
Over more than four hundred pages such flourishes can get to be wearing .....
The characters are fairly well-developed, from pensive Mümtaz (who blossoms when in love) to Nuran, who comes with quite a bit of baggage, to Suad -- a welcome antidote to Mümtaz, Suad identifying their different outlooks as: "You live through words. Whereas I want to fathom the meanings of words." But A Mind at Peace remains more a book of explanation and talk than of demonstration and action.
Often marvellously evocative, A Mind at Peace is not an easy read, but one can understand the place it holds in Turkish literature." - The Complete Review
"More than half a century since its publication in Turkish, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpnar's landmark novel A Mind at Peace is finally available in English, courtesy of translator Erdag Göknar. Highly praised by Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, the 2006 Nobel laureate in literature, A Mind at Peace rather self-consciously attempts to immortalize a liminal Istanbul wedged between the recently collapsed Ottoman Empire and the emerging European-style Turkish state. The premise is intriguing, yet the story unfocused and related in grandiloquent prose.
The Ottoman Empire's demise may have been inevitable, but for protagonist Mümtaz this does not resolve the matter of which Ottoman values should be retained: "[W]e feel in our lives ... the vast fallout of two centuries of disintegration and collapse, of being the remnants of an empire and still unable to establish our own norms and idioms." Wandering through a disconcerted Istanbul facing the uncertainty of a new era, Mümtaz reflects upon Turkey's myriad challenges, the approach of another world war, and his painful breakup with fiancée Nuran.
The best sequences, poignant and haunting, involve Mümtaz sifting through discarded books and gramophone records in Istanbul's famous open-air markets. As Mümtaz's friend, Tevfk, wryly observes, "The whole of Istanbul is on sale at the bazaar." The replacement of the Turkish language's Arabic alphabet with its Latin counterpart has effectively deracinated younger Turks, for whom the Ottoman-era written word becomes inaccessible. Mümtaz notes that, "Today in Turkey we wouldn't be able to name five books that consecutive generations read together."
In discussions about Turkey's woes, the country's main politico-cultural quandary during the period in question occasionally finds expression in encapsulated fashion. For example, Mümtaz's cousin Ihsan muses: "In its natural form, revolution occurs when the masses or social life leaves the state apparatus behind. With us, rather, the masses and social life, that is, the collective in question, is obligated to catch up to the state." By and large, however, this "novel of ideas" proves no different from its literary kin, what with hopelessly stilted dialogue and jumbled verbiage.
In fact, lack of a focused storyline and embarrassingly florid writing ultimately sink this tale. A Mind at Peace is that most compromised of literary creations: a novel of undeniable historical value, the reading of which is a trying experience." - Rayyan Al-Shawaf
"It took sixty years for A Mind at Peace, Ahmet Tanpınar’s epic of Istanbul, to be translated into English. With Orhan Pamuk’s 2006 Nobel Prize and the country’s selection as the 2008 Frankfurt Book Fair guest of honor, it is the perfect time to experience this important pillar of Turkish literature.
We meet the main character Mümtaz, a writer working on a novel set in the 18th century, with his world on the precipice of numerous crossroads. He is attempting to salvage a relationship with recently divorced Nuran. His cousin Ihsan is potentially on his deathbed with pneumonia. The remnants of the Ottoman Empire is attempting to rebuild a new Turkish Republic, with the resulting convergence of Eastern traditions and Western ideas of modernization. The newly globalizing world, recently recovered from the Great War is on the verge of being pulled back into conflict through Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Mümtaz’s interests and allusions through the book fluctuate between the East and West, with a mention of James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom coming next to a mention of the writings of Yahya Kemal, a Turkish poet from the first half of the 20th Century. This split both dissects and melds the book together, creating a two-headed animal:
Mümtaz imagined himself, at this pre-dawn hour, as a Siamese twin, one face looking East and the other West, with two bodies and four legs, scuttling sideways.
Perched on all these precipices, the novel itself is surprisingly calm and staid. The relationship between Nuran and Mümtaz dominates the content of the story, but it becomes quickly apparent that this is not the true center of the novel. The city of Istanbul is the true focal point, with Tanpınar attempting, like Mümtaz, to figure out where and how the two bodied, four legged creature will move forward. Through the romantic walks of Nuran and Mümtaz, Tanpınar documents the beauty and the vastness of Istanbul:
Mümtaz was surprised that he hadn’t noticed a detail so simple. “The nighttime map of the Bosphorus is something like these lights for me. Like what you said… One lives here as if in a dream, sometimes becoming part of a fable…”
The energy of the novel can best be thought of as beginning as a small snowball with little momentum at the top of the hill. The novel starts off, admittedly, quite slow but steadily, through the series of meditations and flashbacks, it gains momentum until finally we return with Mümtaz to the present from the last flashback, during which he searches the city for a doctor for his cousin Ihsan whose condition has worsened. These final forty pages provide a substantial payoff for the reader who becomes immersed in the rhythm of Istanbul, as Mümtaz eventually ceases to be captivated at the turmoil within himself and realizes the turmoil in the surrounding world as Hitler begins his invasion of Poland, marking the beginning of the conflict that would become World War II.
The novel functions in much the same way as Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass—an initial question is raised of ‘Who are we?’, which is then explored further. Tanpınar, however, does not give the forceful, straightforward answer that Whitman does. There is an answer-less quality, ultimately creating an Istanbul that will evoke T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land to many Western readers. He makes no overarching claim of destiny for the Turkish people, which comes out of the post-war malaise and modernist ideas from Europe that Tanpınar cites throughout the novel. The question echoes throughout the novel, informing each line, but never receiving a requisite answer. And it is this inability to answer clearly, due to an internal hüzün or melancholy, that causes the work to resonate beyond its boundaries, that prevents a reader’s mind from being completely at peace." - Andrew Wessels
"KEMAL ATATURK, the founder of modern Turkey, famously forced the Turks to toss their fezzes into the Bosphorus, abandon the Arabic script, and reject their Ottoman past. Atatürk dreamed of a secular Western state, and after World War I and the Turks’ Independence War, he (sometimes brutally) implemented that dream. He still wins praise for this, not only from Westerners tantalized by the possibility of taming Islam, but also from secular Muslims in the East. (Pervez Musharraf, the former strongman of Pakistan, cites Atatürk as one of his heroes.) Yet what was life like for the Turks living in Atatürk’s brave new world? His top-down revolution is often portrayed as a successful one—but it was, after all, a revolution, with all the uncertainty and terror that the word implies.
It is difficult to find memoirs of post-revolutionary Istanbul in English—memoirs that describe what it was like to be unable to read street signs, to see women unveiled, to lose one’s identity and one’s empire. For the mid-twentieth-century Turkish novelist Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, the post-Ottoman era was in fact when the Turks lost their souls. Tanpinar’s novel A Mind at Peace, which appeared in 1949, offers a rare glimpse of what it means to experience both external and internal devastation: Istanbul ravaged by war and poverty; entire populations transferred out of the once-cosmopolitan city; the loss of superpower status; the new Turkish Republican pressure to banish the rotting Ottoman past from their minds. As Tanpinar writes, “What do you think we’ll gain through such a refutation besides the loss of our very selves?”
Orhan Pamuk has called this book “the greatest novel ever written about Istanbul,” and Pamuk has studied it well, if not replicated it in books such as Istanbul: Memories and the City, The Black Book and The Museum of Innocence. All these works are as much biographies of a dying Constantinople as they are meditations on a particular Turkish mood. A Mind at Peace is suffused with the melodrama of contemplation and obsession: walking, searching, smoking, grimy back-alleys, passing ships, unattainable women, insufferable men. Pamuk introduced the concept of huzun, or Turkish melancholy, to Western readers, but in this book we discover this strange, deathly, fatalistic feeling that keeps Turks pacing up and down the Bosporus, or wandering the winding backstreet hallways of the wounded city. In the new Istanbul, Pamuk has written, Turks discovered that their empire had been reduced to the equivalent of an impoverished neighborhood—and still, years later, “ours was guilt, loss, and jealousy felt at the sudden destruction of the last traces of a great culture and a great civilization that we were unfit or unprepared to inherit, in our frenzy to turn Istanbul into a pale, poor, second-class imitation of a western city.”
Readers who reject Pamuk’s rather indulgent melodramas will have problems with A Mind at Peace, too—why so much repetition, torpor, paralysis? As Pamuk himself explains, only Turks can grasp huzun. But if you give yourself over to it, huzun can also hypnotize and transport: sometimes, after reading Tanpinar or Pamuk, I can’t help but see the city the way they do, as if I am peering into Istanbul’s empty living rooms and sad cafés for the first time. Today’s Istanbul has been dusted off and polished up to the delight of tourists from New York, Paris and Abu Dhabi, but the rendering of a crumbling, gothic netherland still rings true.
Tanpinar’s novel begins on the eve of World War II, in 1938. Mumtaz, the hero, begins by recounting the deaths of his parents during the War of Independence. As a young boy, he was exiled from his burning city to a more peaceful one, and on his travels he witnesses the agony of war: Anatolia, which will make up the new Turkey, is a wasteland. During an overnight stop on his way to Istanbul, a grieving young woman seduces Mumtaz while he is sleeping. The dream-memory of this fleeting pleasure will haunt him as much as the death of his parents—and the tragedy of his country. In Istanbul, his uncle, a mentor and an intellectual, provides Mumtaz with a happy life, but the trauma of the past remains: “Everyday events, that is, Time, made him forget about this stratum of affliction and unendurable suffering, yet when melancholy found him, it stirred within him like a Hydra-headed serpent, slithering around and constricting him. Classmates told him he howled in his sleep at night.”
For most of the novel, Mumtaz’s primary concern is his ex-fiancée, Nuran, who has left him. In a long flashback, Tanpinar recounts their love affair: courting on caciques (Turkish rowboats), boozy nights debating the ideas of the day with friends, falling in love on a ferry. Istanbul may have been down in the dumps, but it sounds like it was as romantic a city as it is today. Neither Mumtaz nor Nuran, however, seem convinced that they are destined for anything other than heartache. Pressing on toward their fates, the couple sets out to explore their broken city together, as if Tanpinar wants to catalogue and to reclaim the past for his readers. He knows that someday even the wreckage will be forgotten.
As Pamuk explains, Tanpinar’s insistence on remembering the past was a “reactionary” stance in the 1940s, when most ardent Kemalists were engaged in nation-building and were imitating the West. Tanpinar, by contrast, found pride, and the possibilities of regeneration, in the Turkish life that already existed. Pamuk cautions that Tanpinar was searching for the specifically Turkish Istanbul, suddenly much more visible since so many Istanbul-dwelling (and often wealthy) Armenians and Greeks had been killed and exiled. A nationalist influenced by Western writers, Tanpinar sought a middle-ground between Turkey and Europe. “To admire Debussy and Wagner yet to live the ‘Song in Mahur’”—an a la turca song—“was the fate of being a Turk,” he remarked. “Until our music changes organically on its own, our station in life won’t change. Because it’s impossible for us to forget it…”
While the love story in A Mind at Peace alternates between the enchanting and the monotonous, the real pleasure of reading Tanpinar lies in his ideas, and in watching his Turkish characters debate their tense new Eastern-Western existence. From these conversations, we glean how tormented Tanpinar was about the future: “We don’t need initiative, we need instruction. And reality itself will provide this, not some vague notions of utopia.” Later, the same wise man warns: “Turkey should only become one thing, and that’s Turkey.”
Is the average Turk today still mourning for a time that has past? In the last ten years, Turkey has once again become almost a different country: the pious are running things, Istanbul has the fourth highest number of billionaires in the world, and Ataturk’s beloved military has faded into the wallpaper. Kemalism is dead. It is Erdogan’s time. But many of Turkey’s writers and artists are engaged in a constant process of excavation, pulling photos and books out of dusty abandoned studios, slowly piecing together their history so they can understand themselves again. The works of the much-loved Tanpinar have a role in this project; and a translation such as this one can only be a good thing for our own re-discovery of the blurry Turkish past.
The major problem with this edition of Tanpinar’s novel is that the translation makes it impossible to know whether or not it is actually a good novel. Turkish is a very difficult language. Turkish sentences unfold in the reverse of English sentences. (Or vice versa.) Turkish words can run as long as eighteen letters. Its idioms are practically untranslatable, and they lose something vital in even the deftest hands. (Maureen Freely, Pamuk’s translator, is especially good.) But it is not even entirely the translators’ fault: many Turks themselves do not know much of the vocabulary in old Turkish novels. Turks are always talking about “bad Turkish” and “good Turkish,” and such assessments go beyond grammar. (I have met somewhat bitter scholars and readers who tell me that Pamuk’s Turkish is terrible.) No one agrees about anything when it comes to this language. Atatürk did not know what he was messing with when he started messing with Turkish.
If you understand a bit of the language, you can see its iron grip on the translator of A Mind at Peace. Erdag Goknar’s English-language prose sometimes makes whole paragraphs inaccessible. The reader comes to feel cross-eyed; the brain begins to hurt. If only things could be swapped around a bit, broken up a little, the reader thinks, then maybe the words will make sense. But a typical passage ends up looking like this: “During one such spell of anticipation, his eyes fixated on the driver’s turquoise-beaded leather whip; waiting emptied of thought, he remembered his father with distinct agony that far exceeded anything he’s ever felt, agony ready to hurdle every separation, belittling every distance between them.” Turks have many things left to discover about their identity, and one day we all may even discover their words." - Suzy Hansen
"Mind at Peace, originally published in Turkey in 1949, is Tanpınar’s magnum opus, a Turkish Ulysses, and a lyrical homage to Istanbul. Set in the “city of two continents” on the eve of World War II (1939), the novel captures the anxieties of a cosmopolitan family challenged by the difficulties of the early Republic, which was founded on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. In the 1920s and ’30s, Turkey experienced a fifteen-year “westernizing” cultural revolution that attempted to distance it as much as possible from its Ottoman-Islamic past by transforming everything from the alphabet to the legal system, from education to the clothes people wore. Access to the past was restricted for the sake of developing a future-oriented “new” society. Writers like Tanpınar lived through this transition and knew how to read and write in both the “old” Ottoman script and the “new” Latin Turkish; in short, they were familiar with two mentalities and the paradox of divided selves.
In Tanpınar’s ironic vision, however, the promise of “modernization” gives way to anxiety rather than hope about the future. What is certain about this new world is not progress, but fragmentation and destabilization. In A Mind at Peace, rapid social change is masterfully gauged through the way it registers in the psyches of Tanpınar’s Istanbulite characters. He seems to be asking, “How does a Muslim society on the periphery of Europe balance tradition and modernity?”
Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar (1901-62) is one of the pioneers of literary modernism in Turkey. That his work has been deprived of an English readership for so long is a tragedy. Aside from one or two stories or excerpts, nothing had appeared in English until the publication in 2001 of his satirical novel The Time Regulation Institute (Turko-Tatar Press). All of his work deserves to be translated.
His heavy use of Ottomanesque vocabulary (Perso-Arabic) and long, complex sentences has added to the challenge of translation. Upon my suggestion, Archipelago Books received the rights to perhaps the most significant Tanpınar novel, A Mind at Peace (Huzur). The English rendering of this novel is long overdue.
Tanpınar, the son of an Islamic judge, was a poet, novelist, and critic who worked as a professor of late-Ottoman and Turkish literature at Istanbul University. Though he was known in his lifetime as a major poet, renowned scholar, and prolific essayist, he was not recognized as a major fiction writer until a decade after his death.
Today, Tanpınar is considered to be an icon of Turkish letters and is an influence on many contemporary Turkish novelists, foremost among them Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk – whose novel My Name Is Red (2001, Knopf) I also rendered into English." —Erdag Göknar
Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, The Time Regulation Institute, Trans. by Ender Gurol, Turko Tatar Press, 2002.
"Old Istanbul aristocrats, Turkish teashops, imperial diamonds, and great and humble mosques are juxtaposed with the almost non-descriptive portrayals of neighborhood friendships, family relations, and local public figures who could be found in any city in Turkey or, perhaps, any Eastern setting where the old way of life adopts new and Western counterparts. Ahmet H. Tanpinar's portrayal of modern, post-Ottoman Turkey weaves a theater of the absurd, suggestively representative of the early days of the young Republic. This translation is introduced by an essay by the late Berna Moran, a leading Turkish literary critic."
"The Time Regulation Institute by Ahmet Hamdi Tapinar offers the reader a truly fascinating and engaging narrative set in post-Ottoman Turkey. Ably translated into English by Ender Gurol, The Time Regulation Institute deals with the juxtaposition of opposites: wealthy aristocrats and family people working as hard as they can to scrape by, the old way of life against the influx of modern Western culture, and parallels between the days of the yore and the young Republic. At times absurd, yet always engaging, The Time Regulation Institute is a picturesque and recommended read that speaks of the heart and soul of a nation." - Midwest Book Review