In Istanbul, his great memoir about the city in which his life and art are rooted, Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk makes a reference to “the novelist Tanpinar, the writer with whom I feel the closest bond”.
All writers have their fictional fathers and mothers—other writers from whom they have learnt their art, whose styles and themes they extend or merely imitate. In this sense Dostoevsky is the child of Gogol, Manto the heir of Maupassant, and at least 42 Indian writers owe their patrimony to Salman Rushdie. Following the award of the Nobel Prize to Pamuk in 2006, many readers have had occasion to wonder what “the novelist Tanpinar’s” works are like. Now Tanpinar’s magnum opus A Mind at Peace, first published in 1949, is available in an English translation, with a little note from Pamuk on the back cover calling it “the greatest novel ever written about Istanbul”.
Tanpinar and Pamuk are linked not just by a common literary tradition, but also by a common translator. Erdag Goknar, the translator of A Mind at Peace, is also the hand behind the extraordinarily musical and beautiful English translation of Pamuk’s novel My Name Is Red (2001).
New order: In this work, Istanbul’s far removed from the Ottoman days. Hocine Zaourar / AFP
A Mind at Peace is set in Istanbul in the last years of the 1930s, and its protagonist is Mumtaz, a young man who was orphaned in childhood and then brought up by his older cousin and his wife. Because of the difficulties of his early life, Mumtaz has never quite shaken off a tendency to be melancholy, and his personal gloom is mirrored by that of his city and country. The Turkey in which he lives is a shadow of the great Ottoman Empire of the previous centuries, its culture precariously poised between its own traditions and Western modernity. A Mind at Peace is self-consciously a novel both about a Turkish man in particular and about the Turkish man in general.
Mumtaz’s cousin Ihsan is a charismatic university professor deeply involved with the major issues of the day, and it is through the exchanges between the two that the novel explores questions of history, power, faith and justice. Tanpinar may remind some Indian readers of Premchand, who too was an avowedly nationalist writer preoccupied with social problems. And just as we often love Premchand not for his didacticism but instead for his attention to detail, for the quirks of his characters or the agility of his dialogue, so too Tanpinar seems most interesting not when he is navigating the world of ideas but when he hears the beating hearts of individuals.
The best passages in his novel are about the love affair between Mumtaz and Nuran, a divorcee and mother of one. In one of the best scenes in the book, Nuran takes Mumtaz home for the first time to meet her family. On speaking to Nuran’s mother, Mumtaz understands “why Nuran occasionally resorted to antiquated words, even delighted in doing so, and why she lengthened and stressed certain syllables”.
The English of A Mind at Peace is not like the English one would find in any contemporary English novel. In an effort to replicate Tanpinar’s lofty Turkish diction, Goknar has forged a sound which resembles something like that of Melville or Nabokov, with many odd and intriguing turns of phrase. It is certainly an ambitious experiment, but the result is less successful than that of Goknar’s encounter with Pamuk. A Mind at Peace is an interesting literary document that illumines the many cross-connections across space and time that go into the making of a novel.
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