28 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In his novel A Mind at Peace, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar asks if it’s possible for a culture that is tied so closely and intimately to its past to survive in a trying time of change. The novel begins in Istanbul the morning of the declaration of World War II and ends with the same announcement, framing the story while we learn about several characters whose lives are marked by events that test their existence and define what it is to be human. A Mind at Peace centers on the life of a man named Mümtaz whose life is surrounded by these characters in a deeply moving portrait as he grows from a child to a young man.

Tanpınar’s novel is set up in four parts, each titled as a character in the novel: İhsan, Nuran, Suad, Mümtaz. The sections of İhsan and Mümtaz act as end plates where the story takes place in the present, holding the past that Nuran and Suad represent.

In Part I, we learn about Mümtaz, the people in his life, and his feelings toward humanity. After the loss of his mother and father when Mümtaz is a child, he goes to live with İhsan, his paternal cousin. İhsan acts as both father and mentor to Mümtaz, sending him to school in France for two years and later on his return, continuing his education under İhsan’s instruction, nurturing his intellectual life in literature, history, and social events. This teaching becomes a backbone for Mümtaz, learning about his self-identity as a Turk in a time when the Ottoman Empire is facing dissolution. The novel continues with historical references and the music and poetry of Turks, which is recited or sung at social gatherings and within the characters, but most significantly within Mümtaz.

A central moment in Mümtaz’s life takes place in Part II when he meets Nuran on a passage over the Bosphorus. In this section, we learn about Nuran and the relationship that ensues between her and Mümtaz. For Mümtaz, this is a moment in his life when “he acknowledged for the first time how sentimental he let himself be.” Mümtaz knew Nuran’s story, her husband’s infidelity, her unhappiness, and Mümtaz, “through a compassion that rose up within him, promised to bring her happiness, for as long as he lived.” Tanpınar’s master storytelling shows two people at the beginning of their relationship, the way they carry themselves physically and emotionally in shyness and in eagerness:

The Music of Silence existed in both, rising to their faces from deep within, and Nuran, frantic to suppress it, appeared more crestfallen than she actually was, while in contrast, Mümtaz, yearning to mask the shyness of his character, forced himself to be bolder and more carefree.

Through this relationship, Mümtaz discovers himself and learns more about his history through the music of Istanbul. A song that plays throughout the novel, “Song in Mahur” is Nuran’s family heirloom. When Mümtaz hears this song from Nuran it is through her singing that Mümtaz feels himself more connected with his past. The relationship between Mümtaz and Nuran becomes one in which their conversation dwells mainly on the current issues of modernization and the importance of keeping their history in mind. Mümtaz believes that to know their history is to know Istanbul, therefore, “if we don’t truly know Istanbul, we can never hope to find ourselves.” As Mümtaz further explains:

Our attachments to the past are also part of these social realities, because those attachments constitute one of the manifest forms our life has taken, and this persists into the present as well as the future.

Their self-identity is tied to the country they are from, but since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, modernization is taking over the country and the natives are trying to adapt to the new. When Mümtaz does a task like furnishing his and Nuran’s apartment, he notices how every sofa shop contains furniture of every “sort and style,” displaying Istanbul’s “changing standards of taste and lifestyle.”

As the music is sung and remembered throughout the novel, it seems it is the only thing that remains within the natives, as a remembrance of their history and their identity. Nuran feels differently, however, “growing tired of Mümtaz’s life and thoughts. The anxiety that he’d been confined to an absolute idea, to an orbit of sterility that took him outside of existence gnawed at him like a worm. It represented a vein of decay that would only grow with time.”

It is expected that this love between Mümtaz and Nuran be put into question: “At times, he attributed their state of satiety and lunacy to the exuberance induced by Ottoman music.” Mümtaz is continually questioning his love with Nuran, and his idea of her is something within his imagination that he ties to their culture. When Mümtaz is faced with reality, he finds himself distraught by humanity. In Part III, Suad enters. A former lover of Nuran’s and ailing from a liver disease, he writes Nuran a letter, expressing his discontent without Nuran in his life. It is Suad’s entrance into the story when Mümtaz feels humanity is harmful. This letter runs through Mümtaz’s memory and leaves him wondering and soon expecting the demise of his relationship with Nuran. Mümtaz sees humankind as “the enemy of contentment [that] struck wherever happiness appeared or made its presence felt.” For Mümtaz, it is hard to be happy in a world that is changing, a world in which the contingencies of life seem to prevent complete happiness. “Humanity couldn’t be fully content; this was impossible. What with thought, settling accounts, and anxiety. Especially anxiety. Humans are creatures of anxiety and fear.” Suad tests Mümtaz, a man of constant worry who lives within his thoughts and his ideas on history and change, and his ability to hold on to Nuran, while the current times move closer to modernization and Mümtaz is forced to question his own life. At one point he comes to this realization, realizing that his loss of his parents at an early age had “instilled the tendency to think and feel this way, to consider everything he cherished as far away,” a distance which makes it impossible for him to hold on to Nuran in the present.

In Part VI, we learn how Mümtaz has slowly been adjusting to several changes, his own belief on humanism changing, but one wonders if this new thought is for the good or better of Mümtaz’s own existence. What we believe about humanism is put into question as we see the change in Mümtaz, and here Tanpınar plucks at our inner selves, expressing what we are either incapable of expressing or are too fearful to admit. Tanpınar’s beautifully descriptive narrative expresses what is at the center of a human being, and what the human spirit strives to attain.

28 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a piece by Emily Shannon on Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s A Mind at Peace, which was translated from the Turkish by Erdag Göknar, published by Archipelago Books late last year, and most famously given as a gift to President Obama by Deniz Baykal, a member of the Turkish parliment.

Emily—a former intern at Open Letter—opens her review:

In his novel A Mind at Peace, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar asks if it’s possible for a culture that is tied so closely and intimately to its past to survive in a trying time of change. The novel begins in Istanbul the morning of the declaration of World War II and ends with the same announcement, framing the story while we learn about several characters whose lives are marked by events that test their existence and define what it is to be human. A Mind at Peace centers on the life of a man named Mümtaz whose life is surrounded by these characters in a deeply moving portrait as he grows from a child to a young man.

Tanpınar’s novel is set up in four parts, each titled as a character in the novel: İhsan, Nuran, Suad, Mümtaz. The sections of İhsan and Mümtaz act as end plates where the story takes place in the present, holding the past that Nuran and Suad represent.

Click here for the complete review.

10 September 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of I Love Dollars by Chinese author Zhu Wen, and translated by Julia Lovell. This first came out in hardcover from Columbia University Press in 2006, and more recently was published in paperback by Penguin. We’ve been meaning to review it for ages—anything tagged as “a Chinese Larry David” catches my eye. Emily Shannon—who was an Open Letter intern over the summer—wrote this piece.

10 September 08 | Chad W. Post |

Zhu Wen’s book of stories, I Love Dollars, established him as a pivotal figure in Chinese literature of the 1990s. As a part of the New Generation, these writers seek to produce a new literature in the post-Mao era, one that conveys nihilistic characters in a hedonistic society and reflects the capitalistic society of China—writing for money, knowing what kind of literature sells and what does not.

Zhu Wen started writing fiction while working in a thermal power plant, a job he eventually quit to become a freelance writer. Zhu Wen’s writing developed during a transitional phase of Chinese authors in the post-Mao era: from the 1980s intellectually elitist to the 1990s commercialism. These writers embraced the Chinese ideal: wang qian kan (“look towards the future,” where “future” can be replaced by “money”).

In the title story “I Love Dollars,” the narrator’s father comes to visit him, just to check up on him and his brother, for whom they spend much of the story in search. While the narrator’s father is visiting, his son takes it upon himself to give his father a visit he won’t forget, which involves getting his father laid. One might find it rather shocking for a son to be concerned with his father’s sex life, but this narrator knows no boundaries. While out with his father, he sets about on the task of finding a woman to please him. His plans do not always work out in the end, whether it is due to the lack of money or his father’s own refusal.

The narrator of “I Love Dollars” represents the writers who embraced the money-centric ideal described above. The narrator of this title story is also a writer, paid to write his stories, and as long as he continues to get paid, he’ll continue to write the kind of fiction that sells. “Keep the dollars flying at him, and inspiration will never dry up,” he says. His father, on the other hand, does not agree with the kind of material he uses in his writing. “A writer ought to offer people something positive, something to look up to, ideals, aspirations, democracy, freedom.” The narrator claims, “It’s all there in sex.” This spat between father and son is similar to the political orthodoxy that was forced upon writers in the early 1990s. The establishment apostles of political correctness called for “cultural works that reflect socialism, give expression to communist ideals and the spirit of the social age . . . and that can fill people with enthusiasm and create unity among the masses.” The narrator’s father wants his son to write something inspiring; not mind candy. Perhaps when the narrator says democracy and freedom are there in sex suggests that this society is obsessed with sex. A novel from another Chinese writer might support this idea.

The Ruined Capital by Jia Pingwa (1993) is a sexually explicit novel about a male writer’s “spermatic journey through the spiritual corruption of contemporary China.” It was a best-seller, showing that sex and sensation made high sales. So perhaps China’s capitalist nation—with its slogan of always working to make a profit—perhaps the idea of writing salable fiction is a part of the freedom allotted to a nation that is about making a profit. The narrator of “I Love Dollars” might then have a point when he says democracy and freedom and ideals are in the sex he writes about and are what help him gain a buck.

The narrator may have a point, and it may be easy to write him off as unappealing—he is a self-involved, sex-obsessed man. “Whenever I met a woman I’d set about getting her into bed immediately.” He claims his libido is a “sickness,” (not to worry, “the symptoms are never anymore intrusive than those of a common cold”). As unlikable as he may be, he is completely harmless, and Zhu Wen’s sardonic tone adds an amusing note to the stories.

In “A Boat Crossing,” the narrator is waiting at a dock for his boat to arrive and take him to another island. While there, he is in the presence of two men whom he cannot get to leave: Qi and Chen. When he finally gets on the boat, he finds himself in another uncomfortable situation where his sketchy cabin-mates leave him feeling mistrustful and paranoid. Throughout the rest of the story, there is one uncomfortable situation after another with curious encounters from characters that the narrator finds to be most obnoxious, and from whom he cannot escape. The ill fortune of Zhu Wen’s narrator in “A Boat Crossing” is given a bit of Kafka-esque paranoia. While there is an irritated tone to the narrator’s voice, the reader feels a bit of sympathy for him, while still chuckling to himself.

With a humorous and entertaining style, the narrator of “Wheels” tells about an incident that happened to him six years ago when he was riding his bike to work. A mob of men claim he knocked into their old man, paralyzing his left arm, but they barely fool him as the old man often forgets which arm is hurt, let alone that he is in pain. The old man and his “bloodsucking relatives” insist on a hospital checkup. “Not just a regular checkup, a full checkup, in which it was discovered the old man had a tumor in his stomach the size of a broad bean.” The narrator does not get rid of this mob as easily as he would have hoped, and even after the checkup, there is a ransom of 3,000 yuan “and the whole thing’s out of his hands.” In the end, the narrator is on his last nerve and he releases his pent up aggression from this mob out on a restaurant owned by one of them.

Zhu Wen’s narrators have a conversationalist tone that absorbs the reader into the world of the characters. While their actions and beliefs (particularly those in “I Love Dollars”) may be unlikable, the reader is still sucked in to the funny and peculiar world of the characters. They are each faced with some mishap that leaves them searching for a way out of it throughout the whole story. It is one thing after another that leaves them feeling irritable and hopeless, and the reader begins to wonder why and how these characters can have such bad luck. Zhu Wen’s witty and comical voice gives it a light mood, reassuring his audience that the stories are still enjoyable.

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