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 The novel continues with historical references and the music and poetry of Turks, which is recited or sung at social gatherings and within the characters, but most significantly within Mümtaz.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.

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A Mind at Peace
By Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar
Translated by Erdag Göknar
Reviewed by Emily Shannon
450 pages, Hardcover
ISBN: 9780979333057
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