Words Behind the Glass

On an edifying visit to the museum of literature tucked away in the garden of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.

ISTANBUL - The guards at Topkapi Palace looked at me in surprise when I asked them the whereabouts of the Alay Kosku - the exhibition pavilion where, according to what I had read in the newspaper Zaman, a museum named for the Turkish writer Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar had recently opened. Eventually, it was one of the clerks in the palace museum shop who directed me to the fancy building with the rounded-pointed roof in the back of the Topkapi garden, with a steep mound leading to its entrance. Only there, after the strenuous climb, was it possible to read clearly the sign stating that this was indeed the museum designed to celebrate Turkish writers in general, and hallow the name of Tanpinar specifically, a writer who died in 1962 and whose standing in the history of Turkish literature is akin to that of Agnon's in Hebrew literature. Except that Tanpinar did not win a Nobel Prize.

It was Tanpinar's misfortune to be a writer in a language that has always had bad PR outside its own country. Precious few can appreciate the subtlety of the Turkish poetry written in the courts of the sultans during the same era as that of European Baroque poetry. Even fewer know that a national-romantic genre of poetry developed in Turkey concurrent with the national-romantic poetry of the Continent, and that it also had elements of symbolism and Dadaism and surrealism. And that, along with the emergence of realistic fiction in Europe, Turkey had its own Chekhov in the guise of short-story writer Sait Faik Abasiyanik, whose house on the little island of Burgaz in the Sea of Marmara serves today as a museum in his memory. And so on.

The Alay Kosku

Truth be told, until writer Orhan Pamuk came along, and until the Nobel in literature that he received a half-dozen years ago brought Turkish literature into global awareness - Tanpinar's name would also not have stood a chance of being known beyond the borders of his country. For Pamuk declared on every occasion that his spiritual father, and the person to whom he owed his talent, was Tanpinar, the father of modernism in the Turkish novel - the writer who combined in his great novel, "A Mind at Peace," the emotional storminess of Dostoevsky with the refined artificiality and cruel psychological analysis of Marcel Proust.

The protagonists of Tanpinar's books wage a daily war on time, in the sense that they are incapable of adjusting to modernity and are frozen in molds that prevent them from being free. This is indeed the subject of Tanpinar's other famous book, "The Time Regulation Institute," a revered work in Turkey, a book of many riddles. As one reads it, one sees that while the novel mocks bureaucracy, it also tells the tragic story of Turkey, a land that has never managed to keep up with global times, and either falls behind or runs after them breathlessly.

Glasses and pens

What could a museum of literature possibly have to show? Literature, after all, is not something that can be locked up behind the panes of a display case. What can be displayed - and indeed this is precisely what you see - are literary "fetishes": Tanpinar's top hat, his glasses, his pens and his manuscripts in Ottoman Turkish - for he lived much of his life before the Arabic alphabet in Turkey was replaced by Latin characters. Each of the decorative, high-ceilinged halls in this museum, covered in wood paneling, are devoted to another canonical writer, including of course Pamuk, who has been honored with an impressive bust installed beside the display case that holds all of his books in their various translations (although I did not see Hebrew there ).

It was moving to see the respect accorded here to the German-Jewish scholar Erich Auerbach, in the form of a glass cabinet full of manuscripts. Auerbach was the author of the seminal book of literary theory "Mimesis," which he wrote in exile in Istanbul in the 1930s. He was one among an entire community of Nazi-persecuted scholars whom Turkey welcomed with open arms in those years. It is doubtful whether there are many in Israel today who know anything about Turkey's contribution to saving Jewish intellectuals in those terrible times.

In the basement are displayed original copies of the early works of the great communist poet Nazim Hikmet, and copies of the journals he published with his comrades in the anti-fascist underground in Turkey. These underground editions were printed on cheap paper, which has now yellowed. As the Germans advanced toward Turkey and the country's relations with the Third Reich warmed up, Hikmet raised his voice in protest - and was thrown in jail; his leftist friends were sentenced to forced labor in Turkey's hinterland. Hikmet himself was ultimately banished from his country and his writings banned there. He died brokenhearted in Moscow, in 1963, after writing beautiful homesick poems about the beloved Istanbul he was never to see again.

Between the pages of these journals are hidden some of the things Hikmet and his friends wrote, from the depths of their hearts and souls, in condemnation of Turkey's anti-Semitic and racist policies at the time. Those were indeed dark days, in which a property tax was levied on Jews and others "who are not Turks" at an impossible rate that was designed to bankrupt them. Whoever could not afford to pay was sent to perform forced labor in country's east. So this, too, is a little-known fact: that there were those who put themselves and their freedom at risk to protest this discriminatory policy.

Since I was the sole visitor to the museum, the docents swooped down on me. When I told one of them that I was from Israel, she passed the rumor along from hall to hall and from floor to floor. In my honor they called in the guy who is in charge of the cafeteria. He opened it up for me, and there they sat me down and served me tea.