BOOK REVIEW: Measuring Time by Helon Habila

41274xuoaol_sl500_Measuring Time is the second offering from award winning novelist Helon Habila. Set in the Nigerian Village of Keti, it chronicles the relationship between Mamo and LaMamo, non-identical twins and sons of the politically ambitious and emotionally distant Lamang.

The boys are not only united by their fraternal bond but also by their antipathy towards their father when they learn of his betrayal of their mother. The strength of the boys’ relationship is put to the test when in their teens both plan to join the military. However a sickle cell crisis leaves Mamo unable to fulfil his dream. Years of separation ensue when LaMamo leaves Keti to become a mercenary abroad, with only his occasional letters serving as comfort for Mamo.

In the backdrop of this ongoing saga between the brothers, there is Mamo’s romance with the beautiful but complicated Zara, his strained relationship with Lamang, and his burgeoning career as a writer. The latter gets Mamo noticed by the Mai, the Village’s traditional leader and he is commissioned to write a history of the Mai’s dynasty. This turns out to be more complex than it seems and Mamo opens a can of worms in the process.

As he chronicles Mamo’s in depth research of Keti, Habila explores how we understand history; who truly are the most important players and who decides?

Measuring Time gets off to a strong start. Habila is a maestro when it comes to poetic prose and the opening chapters of the novel are a welcome reminder…

“…This was the year they killed the old witch’s dog…it was the loud barking that gave Mamo the idea. They were high up in the crooks of the topmost branches, their legs dangling in the air, their mouths yellow with mango juice. He stopped gnawing on a mango seed and said, “You know, dogs can see spirits and ghosts”. LaMamo looked at him and said, “How do you know that?” “I read it somewhere, in a book.”…Mamo went on, “You can see things too if you rub dog’s rheum in your eyes. You know, distant places, underwater people, and spirits, all those beings Auntie Marina talks of in her stories.”…

He deftly recreates the sights sounds and feel of Keti and such vivid scenery complements the almost mythical way the early days of the twins’ lives are depicted. I am always won over by novels that place more emphasis on characters and their development than plot.

Despite the detailed storyline of Measuring Time and the many subplots, most of the characters never get eclipsed by them. The pace of the novel is true to its title. In Habila’s Caine Prize winning debut Waiting for an Angel things move rather more swiftly and it served the book justice given its structure- several different stories presented in a snapshot form. In that regards Habila’s second novel is quite distinct from the first but once again it suits the nature of the story. This is testament to what a holistic writer Habila can be.

helon610xMeasuring Time refers to the predictions of Mamo’s early demise as a result of his sickle cell anaemia that, to his own surprise, he defies. It also refers to the chronic boredom Mamo experiences in the absence of his brother and when his initial dreams of completing his education are scuppered by illness. He returns to his father’s home with little to do until his uncle Iliya throws Mamo a lifeline by offering him a teaching position in his school.

In fact all the themes of the book are somehow linked to this notion of waiting and the passage of time. As each character metaphorically watches the clock their expectations are different, some don’t appear to know exactly why or what they are waiting for. On the other hand you have someone like uncle Iliya, whose hopes are more clear-cut but frustrating circumstances force him to wait. Not unlike how Mamo waits to hear from – and maybe see LaMamo again. It is clear from both his books that Habila is drawn to exploring the topic of anticipation and all its manifestations. So he is consistent in that respect.

The main problem I had with Measuring… is that by the time I reached the conclusion, it appeared to have run out of steam. The literary equivalent of trying to conduct a conversation with someone who keeps trailing off at the end of their sentences. I don’t get the impression, however that Habila himself lost conviction in his writing of the book. It just seems that he introduced one too many subplots that exhausted the story and it could not help but stagger desultorily towards the finish line. The novel would have benefited more from making the twins’ relationship as strong a feature at the end as it was at the beginning. This could have been achieved simply by Habila ending it sooner.

I wasn’t particularly bothered that not all issues in the book came to a nice, neat conclusion. Some of the best contemporary authors know that an open ended, ambiguous ending can be the most fulfilling and realistic way of resolving a novel (Kazuo Ishiguro for instance). I just felt some elements of Measuring Time had the ‘*shrug* so what?’ affect on me and that the novel wouldn’t have been worse off if they were not there. Mamo and Zara’s romantic entanglement is a case in point. Despite each paying-lip service to their undying love for each other, neither seem committed enough to really do something about being in each other’s lives permanently.

‘On their faces a million fleeting expressions came and went: sorrow, pain, doubt, regret, love, even fear…”Listen, I am sorry for everything…about leaving you the first time…about so many things” (Zara) stopped, took a deep breath and then blurted out, almost in a whisper “It would never really work, would it, you and I?” (Mamo) said nothing. “Maybe we love each other too much”…

14217_helonhabilaHmmm, I can’t comprehend why loving someone a lot is meant to be a good enough reason to break up with them. Zara in particular comes across as self-absorbed and far too interested in her own convenience to really be there emotionally for Mamo. Or at least she is not candid enough about why she cannot be there for him. By the end of the book the whole affair felt like a pointless addition to an already heavy-laden story. Where in Waiting for an Angel the love stories enhance the book, Zara and Mamo’s relationship in Measuring Time only weighs it down.

It was going to be difficult to follow up an instant classic like Waiting for an Angel with it’s sublime blend of the supernatural, harsh reality, political oppression, tragedy, hope and warm memorable characters. Measuring Time on the other hand lacks some of the heart and consistency of Habila’s debut. It is nevertheless a solid novel and Habila still displays a remarkable dexterity and understanding of the richness of language. However anyone who is unfamiliar with Habila’s work should start with Measuring Time and work his or her way backwards to really get an idea of his capabilities.

By Tola Ositelu