Thursday, June 27, 2019

Helon Habila: Measuring Time (2007)

Helon Habila in 2006

[Image source: ]

Habila is a brilliant storyteller. I've no intention of recounting the plot, but I'm unusually conscious that even the small revelations in these notes have the potential to spoil the delicate unfolding that a first-time reader experiences...


Helon Habila's first novel, Waiting for an Angel (2003), was set in Lagos. Measuring Time, however, is a totally provincial novel. The book is mainly located in a village called Keti in northern Nigeria. Keti is a fictional location. The state capital is mentioned regularly, though never named. You can get a sense of the general locale from other places named in the book: e.g. Jos, Bauchi, Abuja, Kaduna, Kano, and at one point Keti is revealed to be in the Gombe area (p. 240). (Gombe is evidently the unnamed state capital.) Habila himself was born in Kaltungo in Gombe state. It would be a mistake to pin Keti down to a single place -- that would set limits on the novel's tremendous scope -- but it's interesting that the colonialist Mr Graves died "attempting one more conquest: to climb the highest peak in Keti, the Kilang Peak, described in the Reverend Drinkwater's Brief History as a 'mountainous contour like a lion couchant'" (p. 267). That's surely an allusion to Kaltungo's impressive Kilang Hill (see photo below).

Measuring Time takes us back into remoter times (the sickly Mamo, after all, becomes a historian) but it's chiefly a novel about the very recent past: mostly, the 1990s. Mamo's stifling life in Keti is its crucible, but the novel looks a long way beyond Keti. For example, it's book-ended by local violence: attacks on Keti Igbo residents in the mid-1960s, prior to the Biafran war, and agitation between the Keti Christians and Muslims, brutally suppressed by the police, in the mid-1990s. But in between, we've read LaMamo's sombre accounts of fighting across the African continent, most horrifically in Liberia. Even here, LaMamo in his letter manages to say that he is sometimes reminded of home. His twin brother Mamo isn't very emotionally intuitive and perhaps never fathoms why LaMamo writes this to him. (Does he ever really understand Zara's sufferings or her decisions?) Later, he asks Bintou, "Was your home in Liberia a bit like this?" Her darkened recoil from his insensitive question is a quiet reminder that Keti cannot represent everywhere else, it cannot feel like home to everyone.

And Keti, at least, has survived. It has done so by assimilating culture from everything that comes into its orbit, whether the gods of the ancient Komda that the Keti peoples displaced, or the village play, The Coming, that recounts the arrival of its first Christian missionary, the Reverend Drinkwater. Mamo has inadvertently contributed to the latter artefact: himself an exemplary absorber of influences from outside: beginning in childhood with Wilbur Smith or Mills & Boon, later encountering Thoreau*, Plutarch, Okigbo, semiotics, etc. Keti is a mixture of peoples, languages, and religions; there are also modern affiliations (such as professions and political parties) alongside older ones like the traditional village rulers (the Mais). Measuring Time has a mostly disenchanted view of life in Keti but it has no idealism about cultural purity.  

[ "To them the play was not about Drinkwater and his 'conquest' of their culture by his culture, it was about their own survival. They were celebrating because they had had the good sense to take whatever was good from another culture and add it to whatever was good in theirs..." (p. 381). Those are Mamo's thoughts, and the book maintains a distance from them -- Mamo is often naïve and mistaken -- but I don't feel it rejects them. Something that other readers might wish to debate.]


Sometimes Asabar came to keep the twins company, he and LaMamo would kick a ball back and forth, taking turns to play goalie, but increasingly Asabar would turn up drunk, staggering and talking loudly about how unhappy he was. He had discovered the pleasures of alcohol. Auntie Marina would shake her head in disgust and give him a long sermon on the evils of drinking, and how all drinkers would end up in hellfire.

"But this is hell, Auntie . . . Life in this village is hell . . . Tell her, Mamo . . . sorry, not you . . . you are sick . . . but LaMamo, tell her how terrible . . . I am tired of going to the farm . . . and school . . . and . . ." And he'd go on and on. To stop him, Auntie Marina would disappear into the kitchen to return with a bowl of rice, or tuwo, and hand it to him.

"Stop! Stop!" she'd scream as he began to dip his dirty hands into the bowl, and make him wash his hands before eating.

"See how scrawny you are?" she would mutter as he gobbled down the food. "See what sin does to you?"

Lamang didn't seem bothered by his nephew's drinking. He had always treated Asabar with more levity than he did his own children. "It is youth," he'd say, "he will grow out of it."

(p. 36)

["tuwo" = cooked cornmeal.]


Lamang's lazy optimism is proved wrong: Asabar never stops drinking. The lovable Auntie Marina's hellfire sermon is no more effective. But the food epitomizes her: she makes survival possible, though her own life was damaged so early.

But there's a lot of waste of life in this picture of survival: that doesn't necessarily mean death, though it often does. Asabar is only one of the wasted lives. One of the many understatedly powerful moments in the later chapters is the unexpected reminder of Saraya, Lamang's beautiful early love of the opening pages; still alive, but her memory gone for some thirty years: just living on. To Zara she's an angel. For Mamo, still, there's some frozen bitterness from childhood. The wonderfully balanced ending leaves us to speculate on the prospects for these and other characters.


Auntie Marina is a more significant character than might appear. Our final glimpse of her, hoeing -- "Mamo wondered what she might be thinking as she stood motionless, staring at the weed and obviously not seeing it" (pp. 370-71) -- starts Mamo pondering, at a crucial juncture, about the complexity of other lives and their expression in gesture.  It's one of the book's central concerns, given Mamo's desire to write the true lives of individuals: to what extent can he, or anyone, understand them, even those he has spent all his life with?

Expressions are dynamic and beneath them the emotions are complicated. "Mamo's anger and relief and frustration vied to dominate his face" (p. 348-49). Habila is giving new philosophical relevance to an ancient literary trope, a cliché in Scott (usually involving the word "mingled") and an entertainment in Dickens, e.g. "[W]ith an expression of face in which a great number of opposite ingredients, such as mischief, cunning, triumph, and patient expectation, were all mixed up together in a kind of physiognomical punch, Miss Miggs composed herself to wait and listen..." (Barnaby Rudge, Ch. 9).


LaMamo was sprawled out in the sofa, singing loudly along to a Bongos Ikwe song on the radio. His mouth fell open when he saw Zara, and he sat up, looking at Mamo questioningly.

"My brother, LaMamo," Mamo said.

(p. 109)


This would have been in the early 1980s. LaMamo is listening to Bongos Ikwue, a popular recording artist from the Benue region in central Nigeria (born in Otukpo in 1942, attended school in Zaria).

This is one of his songs, "Still Searching":


The radio and books sustained him at night. He'd lie in the dark and listen to the voices from faraway Lagos or London or America or Germany discussing art or politics or architecture. There were also the late request programs when insomniacs like him would phone in with their marital woes, their sexual angst, their clinical depressions, and their congenital diseases. As he listened to the voices, with the moonlight coming in through the window, the loneliness didn't bite that sharply; he'd feel as if the people on the radio were seated beside him, together forming a community of misfits, freaks, and solitaries, desperately reaching out to touch flesh, to form a circle of empathy. His bed was a time ship, the radio was a component of it, moving him forward and backward in time, visiting history and people and places, until finally the announcer's voice lulled him to sleep. Sometimes he'd jerk awake again, the light through the window in his eyes and Beethoven's Fifth on the radio -- but it was not morning yet, it was only the false dawn and it would grow dark again. The real dawn was still hours away. It was at times like this that he'd look across the room to his brother's empty bed, and his eyes would fill with tears.

(pp. 140-41)


I've never seen the false dawn (zodiacal light, caused by sunlight reflecting off interplanetary dust); in fact I had never even heard of it, except as a figurative expression. But then I live in a light-polluted town in the relatively far north. In rural areas near the equator it's a common phenomenon.


Measuring Time (2007) was Helon Habila's second novel. His fourth, Travellers, was published just a few days ago (June 2019). He has also written The Chibok Girls (2017), a non-fictional book about the Boko Haram kidnappings.

Some early reviews of Measuring Time:

Helen Oyeyemi (New Statesman):

Giles Foden (Guardian):

Hari Kunzru (New York Times):


Interview by Frank Bures:

(This is from 2003, when Habila had only just published his first book, but is fascinating for his vision of what a modern African novel might be.)

Kilang Hill, Kaltungo (Gombe State, Nigeria)

[Image source:]


* Thoreau.

"You could finish writing your novel."

"Sometimes I feel like I have run out of things to say."

He stroked her head, then he quoted, "'The world is as new today as it was when first created, and what we have is not a shortage but a surfeit of things to say.'"

She sat up and looked at him.

"Herman Melville, or Thoreau, said that," Mamo said.

"It's so optimistic, so beautiful. I should write it down somewhere."

(p. 134)

Mamo is misquoting, if he's quoting at all.  It sounds like it could be Melville or Thoreau, or indeed lots of other people, but Google supplies nothing.



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