Review: Measuring Time by Helon Habila
Title: Measuring Time
Author: Habila, Helon
Length: 383 pages
Genre: Fiction, General
Publisher / Year: W. W. Norton and Company / 2007
Why I Read It: Kinna chose it as her prize after winning my Nigerian mini-challenge and it sounded so good I ordered an extra copy for myself.
Date Read: 26/07/10
Helon Habila won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, Africa for his first book, Waiting for an Angel. He also has a new book to be released this year, Oil on Water. Habila was born and raised in Nigeria but now lives in Virginia. After reading this book I will definitely be on the lookout for his two others, as this one was incredible.
Measuring Time tells the story of two twin boys – Mamo and LaMamo. The story follows Mamo, who is the elder of the two twins but who has sickle-cell anemia. Sickle cell anemia is a disease that is very prevalent in Nigeria so it was interesting to see a main character with the disease and see how it affects peoples lives. LaMamo is the younger and more rambunctious twin. Together they get in to all sorts of adventures and dream of becoming famous one day.
The twins live with their father, who is never around and not very pleasant, and their aunt Marina who them adore. Their mother died in childbirth and, so the stories go, from a broken heart thanks to her philandering husband. After their uncle returns from the war, they determine that to get famous they can fight a war themselves. Mamo gets sick, however, and so LaMamo and their cousin Asabar head off without him to experience the world and fight a war.
The rest of the book contains letters from LaMamo to Mamo from Chad, Liberia, and beyond where he is a mercenary fighting in wars, but mostly follows Mamo in the small village of Keti. Mamo finds himself immensely lonely with LaMamo gone. He realizes how important his brother is to him, and how much he depended on him. Through time he learns to accept and appreciate the rest of his family as well.
When talking about his time sick and the stories his aunt told he says, on page 22:
My life is linked to hers like it is linked to my brother’s, in a straight and uncomplicated line. There are no mysteries, no shadows – just light.
He starts to take an interest in history and in the telling of history. A major theme through the book is history and culture and tradition. The intersection between traditions and culture and modernity and what to choose. It also looks at colonization and the effects it had both good and bad, though never in a way that gets preachy. In his research for biographies he comes across a lot of information that when plainly presented really makes you think. His uncle says something on page 98 that really sums up what the book seems to be about:
Some have accused me of promoting Western ways and making young people forget their tradition and culture. They point out to me the evils of modernity – as if tradition itself is devoid of evil. You will come across such people; my advice is, don’t listen to them, get education. If you want to follow tradition, follow it because you understand it, not because some old man told you it is our way.
The book never states a preference for either culture and tradition or modernity when they are placed against each other (though obviously Mamo and LaMamo benefit significantly that modernity won out over the tradition of abandoning twins!) but simply places them and points to all of the nuances that exist in real life. The point is to know the history, know the tradition, know the culture, but know it’s limitations.
Mamo finds a history of his village and his people written by a white missionary and writes a review of it that gets published in a literary journal. In the review he talks about what history is and what history isn’t. In that discussion he says, on page 180:
…as far as he was concerned a true history is one that looks at the lives of individuals, ordinary people who toil and dream and suffer, who bear the brunt of whatever vicissitude time inflicts on the nation. He said if a historian could capture these ordinary lives, including their recollections of their own family’s past, then he might come close to writing a true “biographical history” of a nation; for when we refer to a nation, are we not really referring to the people that inhabit that nation, and so isn’t the story of a nation then really the story of the people who make up that nation?
The title of the book comes from a great passage that really highlights the incredible writing in this book so I thought I would include it. Mamo is lonely, and says, on page 139:
He waited for something, anything, to happen, and as he waited he measured time in the shadows casts by trees and walls, in the silence between one footfall and the next, between one breath and the next, in the seconds and minutes and hours and days and weeks and months that add up to form the seasons. The rainy season ended in October, the wind turned brown and brittle. Farmers brought home the harvest’ the hunters set the hills on fire and chased the game up to the summit. At night the hilltops became incandescent with color – like a painting, the fires snaking around the contours of the hills, their orange reflected by the low clouds that hung over the hills like a backcloth.
Overall I highly recommend this book to all.