A Mind at Peace, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar (trans. Erdağ Göknar). Archipelago Press. 450pp, $25.00.
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.
|Tanpınar on the cover of a
Turkish edition of A Mind at Peace.
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 lives in New Haven and will be starting grad school this fall. He blogs at Blographia Literaria and his work has appeared online at n + 1 and The Valve.
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