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The Excavation of Melancholy

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 is a writer living in Istanbul.