'A Mind at Peace' by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar
Reviewed By Richard Eder
Istanbul's inhabitants have called it "the city of two continents," part of it lying in Europe and part in Asia, with the waters of the Bosphorus joining them. Or separating them.
Which, though? The question is about national identity, not geography. Turkey has struggled with the question, certainly since Kemal Atatürk overthrew the Ottoman sultans in the early 1900s and imposed a Westernizing rule over an Eastern culture that remains part resistant and unassimilated to this day.
The theme has been famously treated by the novelist Orhan Pamuk. His "Snow" displays an indisputably Westernized writer's painful doubts about a century of forced transformation; one that not only remains stuck halfway but also, along with its benefits, has supressed some of the richness of the older heritage.
It is also the theme of Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar's honeyed, searching and melancholy epic, written in the 1940s and only now translated into English. "A Mind at Peace" is far more elusive and diffuse than Pamuk's work. Much of it is difficult to gain access to for a non-Turkish reader, with its reams of talk about varieties of traditional music, and involved weighings of Turkish writers from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The translation suggests English spoken with a foreign accent, and it lurches with oddity. This of course is a difficulty; at the same time, it has the transporting quality of such an accent, imparting in the reader the heartbeat of an unfamiliar world.(Would we even remember Marlene Dietrich if she'd spoken Oxbridge English?)
In any case, Tanpinar (1901-1962) has produced a work that, despite its long and (to us) obscure side trips, creates a portrait of a city and a culture -- Istanbul on the eve of World War II -- that seems like the land of Cockaigne, magical and lost. His novel is as much about its setting and colors (the green of an Emerald City) as about the stories and wonderfully eccentric and varied panoply of characters.
The play of sun on water, the Bosphorus ferries that ply back and forth to villa-studded islands, the lights that star its shores, the glint of bluefish netted at night, are also characters. At one point, the lovers at the center of the book reflect that these things, quite as much as each other, are the heart of their aching, doomed summer affair.
Doomed because Mumtaz, a young intellectual besotted with Baudelaire and weightless cogitating; and Nuran, an older woman from an established family and divorced, perhaps temporarily, from a faithless husband, come to represent Turkey's East-West divide. The life and artistry that Tanpinar gives to the ardor and fragility of their affair occupy his book's middle section, which stands as one of the 20th century's notable literary love stories and cultural watersheds.