A Mind at Peace

A Novel

Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, translated from the Turkish by Erdag Goknar

Archipelago: 448 pp., $25

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.

Take their first meeting, on one of the ferries that these two privileged figures take in the course of their excursions. Passion lights up Mumtaz with romantic exhilaration and infinite, unattached possibilities. Nuran, with her scars from a once-loving marriage and her immense complexity of family obligations, feels darkened.

"Am I to once more pass over roads that I've already traveled? Is there a torment greater than this? Why are men so selfish? Why is it that they think we women are as free as they?" she reflects. "And she absolutely had to get new shoes." Around Mumtaz and Nuran is an unforgettably portrayed entourage of relatives and friends. There is Nuran's ancient cavalier of an uncle, a onetime Atatürk lieutenant who displays the varied refinement -- connoisseur, musician, gallant -- of a 19th century Ottoman aristocrat.

There is a hypochondriac brother who takes a separate drug for each of his organs: together they resemble "a governmental cabinet whose seats were occupied by ministers of different ideologies and parties." For a childlike young friend, "[c]ountless days stretched before her, and she dressed them in her hopes like little puppets." On the other side, there is Mumtaz's cousin and mentor, an interminable spinner of advanced political theories; and a clutch of would-be Europeanized friends who spend their days sitting in cafes and prescribing remedies for their country and the world. Neither one will pay any attention: the Second World War is about to break out.

East and West reach a climactic counterpoint in a stunning if immensely prolonged account of a musical evening. A revered master of ancient Turkish forms performs in a traditional style that shuns originality and stresses the religious devotion of repetition. When Nuran joins in the old chants as Mumtaz watches, it marks the rising tide of their separation.

Tanpinar's masterpiece has been compared to Joyce's "Ulysses." It bears some resemblance: in its young, questioning hero exploring himself as he explores a city, in the futile cafe speculations of second-rate intellectuals in a country on the margins of Europe and in its partial use of a stream-of-consciousness.

The likeness is relatively superficial. If "A Mind at Peace" has a parallel, it is in the infinitely suggestive, distant and fading world of the great Greco-Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy, whose civilization likewise bore the imprints, though far more distant and faded, of an Ottoman heritage with universal inklings.

Eder, a former book critic of The Times, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1987.