a literary humour channel in the modern Turkish novel

reviewed by ersan uldes

The Turkish novel of the Republic Period was marked by a variety of influences. At certain points, most works paralleled European literature, whereas at other times they were closed to external influence and developed their own dynamic. The most influential school was social realism. Throughout the 20th century, the development of Turkish literature was dictated by this style, and almost every writer’s performance was evaluated according to the criteria of social realism. It is for this reason that many writers only received the recognition they deserved posthumously.

The common characteristics of such writers were their universal understanding of literature and their humoristic foundation. In fact, this universal understanding was supported by their humorous approach. After all, wasn’t humour at the base of those works that we now consider as the founding text of the novel genre? Both Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel and Cervantes’ Don Quixote contain a humorous touch from start to end, and they still have the power to influence today’s literature from centuries ago.

Within the modern Turkish novel, we do come across important and humorous works that give importance to this literary heritage. Not losing their perfection when evaluated from a non-orientalist point of view, these works are written with a universal criterion but they definitely belong to this land. However, as mentioned before, most of these works that share a strong kinship were, for social and political reasons, considered of minor importance when first published and only later they gained recognition.

The Time Regulation Institute

by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar

Within Turkish literature, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar is known for his novels, poets and essays. While some literary circles focus more on his poetry, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s influence as a novelist and a philosopher cannot be denied either. Tanpinar’s novel, The Time Regulation Institute, first published in instalments in 1954, stands at a most distinct point within the history of modern Turkish novel, as well as within his own body of work. The first-person narrator of the novel, Hayri Irdal, is so well written as to place him among some of the most respected novel personas of world literature. He is naïve, hard working, and devoted, even though his devotion leads to public humiliation; he never loses his sincerity, is a bit old fashioned and is not able to adapt to the world. Hayri Irdal resembles a 20th century Turkish Don Quixote, one who has been squeezed between the values of the West and East and who cannot really handle the intricate promises of the modern world.

The opening sentences of the novel capture the character of its hero superbly: ‘Everyone knows that I am not much of a scholar. Except for the stories of Jules Verne and Nick Carter, which I read in my childhood, my education consists of what I could glean from the history books I leafed through, skipping passages interested with Arabic and Persian expectations, and from such storybooks as The Thousand and One Nights, the Tale of the Parrot, and Ebu Ali Sina. Later, for want of something better to do, before the establishment of our institute, I had, now and then taken the opportunity of glancing at the schoolbooks of my children. It also often happened that I read articles and serials in the dailies at the coffeehouses of Edirnekapi and Sehzadebasi where I fooled away my time.’1

The novel follows a linear structure. Hayri Irdal writes his memoirs, starting from childhood and moving through to his old age. Deeply interested in clocks since his childhood, this interest is intensified by his apprenticeship with Nuri Efendi, the time keeper at the mosque. Hayri Irdal’s life changes completely when he meets Halit Ayarci, who suggests establishing a time regulation institute. A series of humorous incidents describe the establishment and early days of the institute. Throughout, the novel carries a hint of political, social, philosophical and existentialist satire. It also portrays some rather interesting approaches to psychoanalysis via Doctor Ramiz and the Society of Spiritualism.

In The Time Regulation Institute, the comic elements of the text appear mostly in the narration, and the language is a lot like the language of situation comedy. For these elements alone, it deserves recognition as a sterling work of humour in the canon of Turkish novels.

Dangerous Games by Oguz Atay

Among the writers who have come to be appreciated much later, Oguz Atay has a special place. He never saw the second edition of his books in his lifetime and his work never met with significant interest, however he has become a much loved writer and a school has even risen up around his work. Atay, who passed away in 1977, was recently commemorated on the 30th anniversary of his death.

Oguz Atay is best known for his novel The Losers, which won the TRT Novel Award in 1970. Dangerous Games, published in 1973, is as interesting and humorous as The Losers.

As Atay had a great awareness of the history of world literature and its development, Atay’s novels contain an independent attitude, free from the era’s dominant understanding of literature. Even though the social realist novel was dominant in Turkey during the period, Atay chose to follow his own more universal path.

Oguz Atay was highly concerned with the historical and universal heritage of the novel. He was an author who followed world literature closely but who never underestimated his local heritage, and was indeed nourished by it. The universal heritage of literature has always had the power of humour at its service, from as early as Rabelais and Cervantes, carried through Laurence Sterne and to writers such as Dostoevsky and Goncharov. It acquired a specific character in the modernist writing of Joyce, Kafka and Musil, and was handed over to writers such as Max Frisch, George Perec, Julio Cortazar and Milan Kundera in the second half of the twentieth century. The kinship amongst Olric, the inner voice of The Losers, Tristram Shandy’s Yorick and Ulrich of The Man without Qualities does not simply come from the similarity of their names. The positioning of Oblomov in The Losers is no accident. When considered from this perspective, it is not surprising to find similar details and situations in both the novels of Atay and those of Max Frisch, such as A Wilderness of Mirrors, I’m not Stiller and Homo Faber.

In Dangerous Games, the tattered consciousness of Hikmet Benol, the novel’s narrator and main character, unfolds throughout the novel. The desperation of an intellectual living in a third world country is portrayed in the personality of Hikmet Benol, with all its dilemmas, impossibilities and delirium. Oguz Atay uses a stream of consciousness technique throughout the novel and in using its limited but extraordinary options, he creates a unique brand of humour. Considering himself ‘important’ and necessary at first, it does not take long for Hikmet Benol to realise his nothingness, ineffectiveness and his own absurdity. After a while, he withdraws into his shell. This withdrawal is symbolized in his move to a shanty neighbourhood. For Hikmet Benol, with his urban background, living in a shanty represents contradiction from which emerges a sense of ali-enation.

‘… But in our country, we mostly grow peasants. Peasants can grow in every climate. It does not take a lot of effort to grow a peasant. Peasants grow in steppes, high plateaus, forests, mountains, in dry climate, grassy plains or in wet climates. They grow up fast and bear fruit at a young age. They grow and bear fruit themselves. We like peasants a lot. When they come to the city, we make doormen and workmen out of them. Paragraph. In our country, there are mountains, grassy plains, rivers, hills, jagged shores, lakes that look like pebble stones and birds, we have an inland sea that looks like a nosed, pointy tailed, open mouthed frog; there are green plains and brown altitudes. With this appearance, our country looks like other countries at first glance. This glance is a bird’s eye view. Our country becomes green in the spring, grows pale like an old map in the autumn. Paragraph. We grow agricultural products in our country. We grow dried grapes and figs. First, the fresh fruit is grown. We grow dried fruit by drying it in sunny places. We send them to England, and they send us facts. They send fact seeds. From those facts, we try to produce facts suited to us. In these last years, besides dried grapes and figs, we have started sending peasants as well. We grow these peasants partially in the cities first, we send them to other countries before they ripen (so that they would not spoil on the journey). And they send us foreign money. We send them folk music, they send driver records and arrangements. We send them “underdeveloped-country”, they send aid. We send news of earthquakes, landslide, floods, they send tents and committees. We send soldiers, they send thanks. We send values-we-nurture-with-so-much-effort, they send foreigners-working-abroad-statistics. We send our-real-people, they send us letters-from-the-army.’

In Dangerous Games, the relationship between the intellectuals and the army is shown by the enforced closeness between Hikmet Benol and Colonel Husamettin Tanbay, a relationship which involves an absolute absence of dialog. There is always a constant bickering and deafness, but there is also the need to stand side-by-side. Besides these dualities, the overall dominant message of the novel is to struggle with and to make an effort to better oneself. With its dynamic language, strong literary structure and humour of desperation, Dangerous Games can also be read as a personal ‘Encyclopaedia of Turkey’ built on the contradictions between intellectuals and the army, the shanty and the city, individuals and society.

Taking into consideration the dynamics within Turkey in the 1970’s, Oguz Atay is regarded as a ‘writer born before his time’, and his death was also before his time. He passed away before writing his grand project, The Soul of Turkey.

The Lie by Tahsin Yucel

Best known for his philosophical essays and literary criticism, Tahsin Yucel is a linguist who has also been recognized for his short stories and novels published in the 1950s. The Last Five Days of the Prophet, published in 1992, caused literary and political turmoil and with interesting debate nationwide. However, because of its literary quality and the power of its humorous bedrock, his novel The Lie, published in 2002, deserves further attention.

‘Among those who followed Yusuf Aksu’s both extraordinary and awfully stable adventure closely, the majority claim that he deserves his fame, while only a few say that he does not deserve it at all. But a significant number of people argue that he owes this fame primarily to accident.’

Even from its opening sentences with their appeal to the reader, the most important characteristic of this novel is the diversity of humorous techniques it employs. Yusuf Aksu finds himself living a lie, even though he never asks for it. When his close friend Yunus Aksu, whom he admires, commits suicide, Yusuf Aksu claims friend’s linguistic theory, since they are alike both in name and appearance. Actually, the theory gets accredited to him before he can even find a chance to explain. Intellectually, the two friends had little in common; Yusuf simply benefits from having an excellent memory. After the initial incident, Yusuf Aksu does nothing to right the situation and allows the lie to grow. The course of events is shaped mostly through the efforts of his admirers. Yusuf Aksu is an infinitely indifferent and extremely carefree character. From the start to the end, he will be steered by events.

Through his humorous approach in this book, Tahsin Yucel highlights a sickly side to today’s mankind. Society does not have any defences against knowledge. When faced with knowledge, society is naked and powerless, it is never curious about the source of anything. More importantly, it is already predisposed to obey the power that’s been approved and accepted. That’s when the humour reaches its climax. The humorous power of the text increases the more Yusuf Aksu remains indifferent, accepting the course of events and while the people around him shape this indifference into a monumental miracle each and every time, interpreting every development, retreat, short conversation and moment of silence as a sign of wisdom. Winner of the 2003 Yunus Nadi Novel Award, The Lie is one of the most delightful examples of modern Turkish novel thanks to its humorous bent and strong structure.

It is possible to place Yusuf Atilgan within this kinship of humour in the modern Turkish novel. His novels Idle Man (Aylak Adam, 1959) and  Motherland Hotel (Anayurt Oteli, 1973) are two examples closely related to this family of literary humour. As we come close to the present day, we come upon other examples, too. Umit Kivanc’s Absent Romance (Gaib Romans) published in 1992, Murat Uyurkulak’s Har published in 2006 and Ibrahim Yildirim’s Letters of Circumstance and Time – Homeland Lessons (Hal ve Zaman Mektuplari – Vatan Dersleri) also published in 2006 can be seen as being within this literary family.


1. Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, The Time Regulation Institute, Translated by Ender Gurol, Turko-Tatar Press, 2002.