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Interesting rather than captivating
on 7 December 2013
The German author, Michael Ende, 1929-1995, wrote fantasy and children's literature and is best known for his epic fantasy `The Neverending Story'. He wrote `Momo' in 1973 with this translation by J. Maxwell Brownjohn being published in 1984. The author's father, Edgar Ende, was a Surrealist painter and the idea of rebelling against conformity and the accepted norms of society underpins this novel.
Momo, a young girl who is running away from orphanage, arrives at the outskirts of an unnamed city and decides to live in a small room under a ruined Roman amphitheatre. She wears old clothes, has raggedy, unkempt hair, refuses to wear shoes and is a run-away from an orphanage. Her ability to listen to others results in an old roadsweeper, Beppo, and a group of children, led by Guido, a born storyteller, coming together to talk and play together. Momo is also very good at resolving problems and arguments between the children. These friends and their parents help improve her living conditions and bring her food every day.
Into this world come the grey men from the Timesaving Bank who convince the citizens to save time by doing everything more quickly and not `wasting' time by talking to one another, `time wasted is time lost'. Their arguments are very convincing and people now manage their personal and professional lives more efficiently but they `never seemed to notice that, by saving time, they were losing something else. No one cared to admit that life was becoming poorer, bleaker and more monotonous. But time is life itself, and life resides in the human heart. And the more people saved, the less they had'.
This has a knock-on effect on the children who, little by little, stop coming to Momo. The city itself changes, `old buildings were pulled down and replaced with modern ones devoid of all the things that were now thought superfluous'. Peoples' lives became `ran dead straight as far as the eye could see. Everything in them was carefully planned and programmed, down to the last move and the last moment of time'.
When she realizes why her friends no longer visit her Momo knows that it is up to her to save everyone from the grey men. However, to do this she will need help. This arrives in the form of Professor Secundis Minutius Hora, a magician who is responsible for time itself and his turtle, Cassiopeia, who communicates through words that light up on her shell and who can see exactly 30 minutes into the future.
Momo is a well-rounded character but most of the others are little more than ciphers and the point about the grey men is that they all look and sound alike, and are referred to by their Bank codes, such as Agent No. XYQ/ 384/b, that offer little scope for individuality amongst the `baddies'. `A grey suited man got out [of the car] and walked in. He deposited his grey briefcase on the ledge in front of the mirror, hung his grey bowler on the hat-rack, sat down in the barber's chair, produced a grey notebook from his breast pocket and started leafing through it, puffing meanwhile at a small grey cigar'.
Using a riddle, Professor Hora shows Momo that `the present only exists because the future turns into the past'. She thinks she has only been with the magician for a day but it turns out to have been a year and a day. In the meanwhile, Beppo goes to the police to seek their help in finding Momo, but the policeman he talks to is not sympathetic, `I see', he said at last. `So you're telling me that an unlikely-sounding girl, whose existence remains to be proved, may have been kidnapped and carried off, you can't say where to, by ghosts of some kind. Is that what you expect us to investigate?'
In the course of the year, Beppo has been put in a mental hospital because he continued to search for Momo, Guido has given up looking for her and become a film and TV celebrity, Girolamo (the name he used in his make-believe adventures with Momo and the other children), and her old friends are too busy to meet up with her again and now live in child depots. One says `It was much nicer playing with you. We used to enjoy thinking up games for ourselves, but our supervisors say they didn't teach us anything useful'. Can Momo defeat the grey men and rescue them all? There is no great build up of tension as the story reaches its conclusion.
Underneath the delicate prose, adults will relate to the everyday distractions in their lives, and remember that, as children, they found adventure and satisfaction from within themselves. Parents and their families still need to search for, and protect, `quality time' together.
The story is rather whimsical. Forty years ago it might have appealed to children and some adults but it is difficult to see it having the same impact now. Would the young be ready to read a quarter of the book before anything very exciting happens? I think that, sadly, time might have left this book behind.