MARION – Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happinessHistorian Andrew Marr analyzes the period between World War I and II, and even up to the middle of the 20th century, as an age when mankind developed theories and pseudo-sciences and systems that were supposed to create heaven on earth. Underlying the Russian Revolution, the rise to power of the Nazis and other similar ideological power shifts was the idea that something from the old order was to blame for the problems a country was experiencing.

If this could be eradicated then life would be good again. It was a time when social sciences were being developed and many of the new revolutions harnessed these sciences, or invented new pseudo-sciences, to justify their creeds and actions.

The Bolsheviks did all they could to encourage science and popularize it for the masses. They saw the imperial era as having been backward and existing Russian scientists as elitist.

At the other end of the political spectrum, under Adolf Hitler German scientists used anthromorphology and in particular craniometry to justify their assertions that certain races were superior or inferior In Nazi Germany, orphan children were to find that the choice between adoption and extermination could depend on the measurement of the circumference of their head. Set in this context, Turkey’s focus on theories about the derivation of language and race seem less out of line with the general historic trend.

Although it does not make the Sun Language Theory — that all languages known to man are descended from one pan-Turkic language — any more correct, it does make its derivation seem less absurd. In an age of pseudoscience, can we really claim that pseudo-linguistics is any more comical than pseudo-anthromorphology? It was certainly less dangerous.

The Sun Language Theory was an extreme extension of the work that had been done to completely revolutionize the Turkish language. In the enthusiasm to revolutionize and modernize every part of Turkish society that engulfed Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s new republic, out went the old Arabic script and in came a new Latin one.

Old Arabic or Persian loanwords went and in Turkish neologisms came. The Turkish Linguistic Society was the governmental body that oversaw this change.

We may find the Turkish Linguistic Society’s continued fight to protect Turkish from loanwords amusing (calling a bus a seated-transporter, or a photocopier an identical-replicator for example), and deprecate the attempt to eradicate anything pre-republican from the life of the new Turkey, but once more if we look at historic context we must recognize the amazing achievements of Ataturk to bring about modernization without violence. Just compare the Chinese cultural revolution of the 1960s where anything traditional was purged as a violent and murderous wave swept across the country.

Mao Zedong’s destruction of the four olds — old customs, culture, habits and ideas — left a staggering 30 million people dead. Republican Turkey’s dismantling of its four olds was enthusiastically embraced by many, leaving just a few authors such as Ahmet Hamdi TanpInar bemoaning the loss of vocabulary in the new Turkish.

To exact his revenge, he wrote the satirically brilliant “The Time Regulation Institute,” sending up the top-down imposition of social change. This year it has been retranslated into English by Maureen Freely, who so brilliantly rendered Orhan Pamuk for a new generation, and Alexander Dawe.

Why would anyone in the English-speaking world be interested in a book that satirizes the social engineering that went on in Turkey a little under a century ago? We read “Animal Farm” as it warns us about the hypocrisy that can underlie communism At first sight, TanpInar, with his belief that the “way forward was not to sever all links with the past but to find graceful and harmonious ways to blend Eastern and Western influences” seems only to speak to his own people. But his rebellion against the work of the Turkish Linguistic Society goes deeper than that of a man who would chose to use the frowned-upon old words if they express a nuance better It is the rallying cry of a man who prizes freedom above all else.

This novel is littered with expositions on the nature of freedom and exhortations to the reader to value it like a precious jewel. We read the magnificent phrase, “The political pursuit of freedom can lead to its eradication on a grand scale.

” In this parody, worthy of greats like Jonathan Swift and Aristophanes, Hayri Irdal is writing his memoirs. It seems that for this average Turkish man, every key point in his life has been linked to a timepiece.

As a child a grandfather clock dominated the family home. His first treasured present was a watch.

But his life’s course was determined when he dropped out of school to help a watchmaker who would regularly make deep pronouncements concerning time. Hayri was to find repeating these witty epithets at a drinking party opened the door to a position as deputy director of the new Time Regulation Institute under Halit AyarcI’s oversight.

From this point on, the novel takes off into a sublime flight in the key of comedy. Just like Charles Dickens’ Circumlocution Office, the Time Regulation Institute is so busy doing so little.

All who work there have a puffed up sense of their own importance, thinking they are “one of the most innovative and beneficial organizations in the world.” The institute is a parody of government bodies such as the Turkish Linguistic Society, and Hayri writes a fictional “history” of a Turkish scientist, again a parody of new “truths” such as the Sun Language Theory.

These factors made the book less popular with contemporary readers, although it is experiencing somewhat of a resurgence in recent years. In a clear allegory of the refusal to allow individuals to think for themselves, the institute’s main impact on society is checking that people’s clocks and watches show the right time and issuing fines (which are heavier if the timepiece is slow rather than fast).

The story of the inner workings of this pseudo-scientific institute is an absolute delight, and the reader often finds themselves laughing out loud — the same reaction as those on whom a fine is levied: “When an inspector notified a citizen of his fine, the offender would initially express surprise, but upon apprehending the firm logic behind the system, a smile would spread across his face until, at last, understanding this was a serious matter, he would succumb to uproarious laughter” The cleverness of choosing the clock and time as the subject of the new department isn’t lost on a Turkish reader For to know the time has always been on importance to a pious society who needed to identify the hours for prayer And the concept of an auspicious moment underlies much Islamic thought. So the Time Regulation Institute is the ultimate secularization of the Ottoman muvakkithane (room of the timekeeper) that was attached to a mosque and focused on the time.

Cultural points like this, and TanpInar’s tongue-in-cheek use of names with meanings, are explained in notes. The translators, too, are to be congratulated in overcoming the huge challenge of representing the author’s cheeky use of old-fashioned language in English — a tongue that has not been subject to political power play.

No one cares whether we say zero (from Arabic, via French), naught (old English) or nil (Latin). But in TanpInar’s day, it mattered in Turkish.

“The Time Regulation Institute” translates into English, and deserves to be a bestseller, because it is a brilliant and comprehensive satire of governmental agencies and NGOs. This is a world of nepotism This is an office where days can be spent inventing new terminology.

This is bureaucracy gone mad. Surely, AyarcI, who runs the institute, must realize the absurdity of his pronouncements? But he is so canny that as his institute collapses he saves Hayri and the other employees from ruin by converting into a fully-staffed committee for its own perpetual liquidation! Even those of us in the private sector can relate to the wonderful descriptions of the definition success and the office politics involved in backslapping and self-congratulation: “So this was how it was done.

First it is determined that the thing called success has been achieved, and then the author of this success is sought out and duly congratulated, after which the author claims that the success belongs to the man who just congratulated him and promptly returns it and he, after setting his share of the success aside, returns the rest to the original author while uttering a few meaningful platitudes.” So it is with some trepidation I give this book five stars, in case in the spirit of satire you wonder whom I expect to be congratulating me.

“The Time Regulation Institute” by Ahmet Hamdi TanpInar is published by Penguin (2014) 10.99 pounds in paperback ISBN: 978-014119575-9 Rating: five stars out of fiv.

SOURCE: Today’s Zaman