By Djami Diallo The Afro News Burnaby
His first novel Waiting for an Angel, which was originally published as a collection of short stories won the already accomplished poet and prose fiction writer Helon vingHabila praise and recognition as a contemporary African writer whom, according to the London Times, was able to “filter the political through the personal with such grace”, giving readers a perspective so new it could be compared to a breath of fresh air. Now out with his second novel, Habila has kept in the same vein delivering something that is highly politicized, but equally charming, dramatic, humorous and altogether captivating. Measuring Time takes us to Nigeria where we meet Mamo and LaMamo, mischievous twin boys whose single goal is to make their father pay for his apparent indifference toward them. The book opens with a flashback to the father’s playboy ways and to the night of the twins’ birth. Habila paints the scene perfectly of the stormy winter night and right away we get a sense of the foreboding gloom that is going to follow us as the story unfolds. But if this provokes a shiver of fright in some readers, then others are bound to get hooked to Habila’s storytelling style, not to mention the memorable characters he creates in Mamo and LaMamo, the duo whom we fall in love with from the outset.
The passing of time is very palpable and none more evident than in the twins. Mamo and LaMamo make a dynamic pair joined at the hip by a bond that only twins can experience. However, Habila grants them individuality which helps readers pick favorites, while assisting the twins in finding themselves. Mamo the elder twin is the weak one, LaMamo the strong one.
Despite their differences the twins remain united by what we read as a deep animosity for their father as well as by their desire for fame. Mamo, the brain of the duo we discover has more than enough time on his hands to imagine ways to bring fame to the pair, due in part to his sickle cell. LaMamo on the other hand, has sufficient bravado to carry out their plans. What’s interesting is that although he assigns to each his own traits, Habila is constantly playing with the distinctions between the two personalities, so that no one twin is a static character. This is apparent at different stages, but first becomes obvious when Mamo comes up with an escape plan for the twins. His decision to run away without any warning is a direct affront to their father, but also characteristic of the boldness we associate with his brother for the rest of the novel. More importantly, Mamo’s plan is a deciding moment in the development of the plot which marks both the separation of the brothers, as well as the entrance of a political language that adds a vital undercurrent to the storytelling. The twins’ physical separation from one another could be read as similar to the fracture of the African continent over years of warfare and Habila writes the scene in almost like one would the script of a dramatic movie:
“He watched them disappear behind the trees, and then he lowered his head and let tears roll down his cheeks. A while later he looked up, startled by the sound of quick footsteps. He composed his face, hastily wiping away the tears, thinking it was some farmer one his way home. But it was LaMamo standing over him. He also had tears in his eyes. Mamo stood up and silently the twins embraced.”
Here we could almost hear the violins playing. No reader could resist being swept away by the emotional tide of the twins’ separation. Effectively, this passage is bound to bring tears to our eyes, as in that moment Mamo feels death is the only certainty for him. However, we should be alert enough to notice a shift in Mamo from this point on: he becomes progressively more withdrawn, begins to wait for nothing in particular and, whereas our previous author Nazer uses Sudan’s landscape as a freeing element for her heroine, Mamo experiences the Nigerian scenery of his small village as a prison. In fact, he feels cooped up almost immediately after his brother’s departure. Habila adapts his tone to suit this shift and what we get is something heavy and pensive, but nonetheless beautiful, which helps us distinguish once again between Mamo’s monotone village life and LaMamo’s adventure on the war front. But if we misread Mamo as being boring and apolitical, then we have missed the point. Mamo’s role as a historian in the village is as important if not more so than LaMamo’s duty as a soldier. Mamo criticizes the way that major people and places are recorded in history and, by wanting to write the lives of ordinary people into it, challenges how we remember these. As a teacher in the Keti village and as he becomes embroiled in local affairs, he becomes a bearer of village customs. LaMamo is political too: although he lacks the intellectual expression of his brother, his bravery translates into a love for his country and its people, first evident in his letters to Mamo-the only lifeline that keeps the brothers’ bond intact.-
Habila writes with a style that I personally found refreshing, especially considering that this is a male-centered narrative, as told by a male voice. There is a certain lyricism here, perhaps due to Habila’s skill as a storyteller and his background as a poet that kept me reading. Habila’s message is in no way dulled down or sugarcoated, and what’s more is that he serves his opinion through two very different personalities whose bond we cannot stand to see broken. In Measuring Time, Habila is all about brotherly love and their dream to put themselves on the map of the world; his own attachment to the African landscape and its tradition is obvious through his unforgettable characters. Ultimately though for me, Habila’s genius is in his criticism of the separation, violence and loss that warfare creates for it rings in our ears long after we have put the book down.
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