Measuring Time By Helon Habila. 383 pages. W. W. Norton Company. Paper
Helon Habila is one formidable writer – of short stories. With the short story as a canvas, he takes his work ethic, mixes it up with his excellent powers of observation of the human condition and finishes up his patented recipe with a delicious dollop of prose poetry. With the short story Habila struts his stuff, gently telling complex truths with the aid of simple enchanting prose. The reader comes away comforted by this gentle storyteller who weaves evocative tales of mean giants who trample upon the innocent as they build monstrous edifices to tyranny. Habila’s short stories leave you pining for more. Unfortunately, more is not necessarily a novel. The novel as a medium of expression undermines Habila’s strengths and exaggerates his weaknesses. Too bad, because on reading his latest offering Measuring Time, it is easy to forget that Habila is a celebrated writer with formidable literary skills. After all Habila has won both the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Caine Prize for African Writing. You don’t get those accolades from tepid writing. I personally regard Helon Habila as one of Nigeria’s important writers.
Clearly making the transition from the short story to the novel, in my view, has been problematic for Habila. I have bought both books that he has written – Waiting for an Angel, and Measuring Time. I am yet to finish reading Waiting for an Angel; instead of chapters, it is organized in chunky sections and each section reads like a good short story that yearns to be completed. The book in sum reads like a short story stretched too far. In Habila’s novels, truths that seemed profound in his short stories morph into overwrought banalities buried in way too many words. The analogy that comes to mind when thinking of Habila’s two books is that of an ungainly stretch limousine populated with soulless characters. Some vehicles should not be stretch limousines.
In Measuring Time, we follow the fortunes and misfortunes of a set of twins – the scholarly but sickly Mamo and the soldier of fortune LaMamo and in so doing we peek through the window of Nigeria’s dwindling lights. Their mother dies during their birth and their father Lamang turns out to be one emotionally absent father. The twins are left to fend for themselves with the aid of extended family members. LaMamo and Mamo are separated early in the book as LaMamo sets forth to join a mercenary group. Mamo stays behind in the village to ruminate on the meaning of history and to write autobiographies, most notably of the Mai or chief of the village of Keti (the Mai is expecting a hagiography but the idealist in Mamo would not oblige). LaMamo and Mamo connect through the distance with long letters from LaMamo. The writing in the letters reminds the reader of the contrived English that seems to be the rage these days thanks to Uzodinma Iweala’s relentless (exasperating, I might add) use of that technique in his books. My humble opinion is that the technique fails to deliver in Habila’s book.
So why read the book? I must say in Habila’s defense that Measuring Time does grow on the reader, slowly but surely. Reading the book was a worthwhile, albeit frustrating exercise. The book does dip its many toes into too many issues and flees without any serious attempt at in-depth analysis. Habila’s technique seems to be to slyly force the reader to think about these things, and in the process, force the reader to do the research. If that succeeds in awakening a consciousness in the reader, then Habila’s experiment has been successful. This reader will never know. For me, it is hard to focus on the myriad issues in the book, thanks to an avalanche of clichéd, uneven prose and dialogue that zigzags between American conversational English and English as is spoken in Nigeria. Surprisingly, I found the book’s editing to be mediocre, with the occasional word used inappropriately. The wooden prose may have been as a result of over-editing, I’ll never know. My first experience with chapters that are not numbered was with Wole Soyinka’s You Must Set Forth at Dawn. I did not like it then and I don’t like it that Habila adopts the same technique in his books. Annoying, especially since each chapter reminds me of an unfinished short story.
The reader plodding through Measuring Time feels like a ravished diner picking through a crab for crabmeat. Hard work, but there is at least the promise of meat. Every now and then, the crab offers some meat but one wonders if it was worth the effort. My verdict is that the reading was well worth my time. There were gems. My favorite chapter (or section?) is the one named after the book, Measuring Time (p 138) the one that houses my favorite lines: “… and as he waited he measured time in the shadows cast by trees and walls, in the silence 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 “ (p 139) Scrumptious. My favorite sentence: “Lamang died in degrees.” (p 215) Neat. There are more gems like that but you really have to plod through the book page by page to enjoy them.
All in all, reading Measuring Time was comforting for this reader who escaped Nigeria many, many moons ago. Where the book was good, one could almost taste Nigeria. My pre-teen daughter Ominira asked me if I liked the book and I said yes. She has the book now and she seems engaged in it; she comes out of nowhere every so often and asks me questions about meanings buried inside the book. She seemed traumatized by a section in the book where the twins kill a dog and rub the dog’s rheum in their eyes. American kids don’t like dog murderers; I’ll have to find Habila and make him pay for my daughter’s psychological counseling. Ominira has been dragging the book all over the place along with her ipod and other accoutrements of American youth. It is a good thing. Our children should read these books. Would I read Habila’s books again? Absolutely, once I find my copy of Waiting for an Angel.