Short Take: Bureaucracies in a Transnational Perspective

Sharon Carson

Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, The Time Regulation Institute. Introduction by Pankaj Mishra. Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe. Penguin Books, 2013.

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These days it’s not hard to imagine someone writing a satiric novel about the recent North Dakota oil boom. It could easily include a send-up where one of the characters, say, the narrator, sets off to investigate a crazy rumor that the oil lobby has shut down a travelling Smithsonian “Green Energy” exhibit at the North Dakota Heritage Center.

Says our fictional character:

“I went down to the museum the day after the exhibit closed and asked to see Green Revolution. An elderly woman volunteer behind the museum’s front desk sighed and said, “Oh boy.” She summoned a museum employee who told me the exhibit was closed and was being enhanced. When I asked why, she read from a piece of paper taped to the desk.

“(The exhibit) has been open for about three months, and after assessing the exhibit and receiving visitor feedback we are going to temporarily close the exhibit gallery to enhance the exhibit,” she read, and then looked up at me. “It’s a Smithsonian exhibit, but I think they’re adding the North Dakota story.”

Readers at this moment can feel only sympathy for this volunteer and the museum employee: both are clearly trapped by their mandate to deliver the double speak of modern bureaucratic obfuscation.

Except this isn’t a passage from a novel. It’s a section from reporter Emily Guerin’s recent journalistic article in Inside Energy: “Emails Show Museum Closed Green Energy Exhibit After Complaints From Fossil Fuel Industry.

This scenario at the museum took place just recently and the people in this story who were forced to read from the paper taped to the desk are real people working in the tense middle lands between public interest and bureaucratic opaqueness.

Not quite so hilarious.

It can sometimes be a great help in coping with the real consequences of such political farce to read rowdy literary satire written in another time and place that reminds us that we are not alone as we grapple with “authoritative” paper taped to desks or flying at us from other directions.

Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s novel The Time Regulation Institute, first published in Turkey in 1962 and recently published by Penguin Books in a beautiful new English translation, is an exhilaratingly sharp cultural satire set in early twentieth century Turkey but written several decades after the formation of the Turkish Republic. The plot revolves around an institute set up to regulate and synchronize every timepiece in Turkey. Except that no work of any consequence or value ever actually gets done.

Tanpinar populates The Time Regulation Institute with characters who enact for us the human tolls extracted by modernity, and they are all people implicated or affected in one way or another by the relentless human quest for power via bureaucracy. Even at its campiest high humor, Tanpinar keeps readers attentive to the many psychological and political dislocations suffered by those caught in very contemporary collisions between tradition and change, between political freedom and authoritarianism.

The Time Regulation Institute is irreverent, deeply funny, philosophically illuminating and politically painful, and when read today in the light of current events in many, many places, a sobering and definitely “not quite so hilarious” work of political art.

Here are a couple of longer reviews of The Time Regulation Institute, with good context for the novel and for Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s work and life.

İstanbul Alay Köşkü Mart 2013The Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar Literature Museum Library in Istanbul

And speaking of museums, here is a piece on The Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar Literature Museum Library in Istanbul – an article from the English language Hurriyet Daily News, itself a paper undergoing its own stresses in the current “bureaucratic” pressure on Turkish media.

Sharon Carson, Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor, Department of English, University of North Dakota

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