View Full Version : Book Review Review: Measuring Time by Helon Habila

Feb 4, 2007, 03:34 PM

A view from the sidelines

Helon Habila's tale of twins caught up in Africa's rocky history, Measuring Time, possesses a universal appeal
Stephanie Merritt
Sunday February 4, 2007

Measuring Time
by Helon Habila
Hamish Hamilton 16.99, pp383

Helon Habila's self-published first novel, Waiting for an Angel, set in Lagos during the Abacha regime, won the Caine Prize in 2001 after the author posed as a publisher to make his submission. Then Habila secured a fellowship at the University of East Anglia - the kind of escape from rural Nigeria dreamed of by Mamo Lamang, the young writer whose story is the heart of Habila's haunting second novel, Measuring Time.

The title is deliberately nuanced: born with sickle-cell anaemia, Mamo is a weak child not expected to live past his teens. He is torn between ambitions for a future far from his village, in one of the European cities whose radio broadcasts he listens to at night, and the knowledge that the sand in his own hourglass is rapidly trickling away. Measuring time is also the concern of historians, politicians and soldiers, especially in Africa.

Mamo lives in books. His twin brother, LaMamo, a man of action, sets out to affect the course of African history as a freedom fighter, and in sporadic letters relates his quixotic journeys through conflicts in Chad, Mali and Liberia. The twins' unloving father, Lamang, is beguiled by the romance of politics and manipulates his way into the local party leadership, becoming mired in its culture of corruption and revenge.

Into his unexpected adulthood Mamo remains an idealist in a world where everyone is out for himself. Yet he is cursed with a passivity that he recognises and deplores. He wants to write history from the bottom up, building the bigger picture from the lives of ordinary people, but lacks sufficient passion to steer his own destiny. His modest achievements as a writer begin only because his girlfriend, Zara, submits one of his essays to historical journals. But history is what happens to others while Mamo watches from the sidelines. Eventually Zara leaves him for a South African, and writes to him excitedly about watching Mandela sworn in. LaMamo, with implausibly honed narrative skills, writes long letters vivid with the first-hand horrors of war. Even when Mamo is drawn into the inner circle of local government, his desire to make a difference is thwarted by the ingrained corruption of officialdom and each time he retreats, lamenting his own cowardice.

Measuring Time confirms Habila as an exceptional voice in African literature. His great skill is to imbue the individual and the local with panoramic, historical significance. Colonial history, tribal myth, 20th-century politics, Plutarch and the poetry of Christopher Okigbo are tightly woven into precise and loving descriptions of landscape. The novel's triumph is to allow hope to endure.

Feb 4, 2007, 06:41 PM
I just got a copy of this book that I plan to begin reading on the 9th (Friday).

I hope I like it.

Feb 5, 2007, 08:14 PM
I just got a copy of this book that I plan to begin reading on the 9th (Friday).

I hope I like it.

Let us know what you think of it. Okay, I'd better snag a copy
of the book on amazon.com. I really liked his short story, "Love Poems"
but haven't yet read a full-length novel by him.

Feb 12, 2007, 04:53 PM
Let us know what you think of it. Okay, I'd better snag a copy of the book on amazon.com. I really liked his short story, "Love Poems" but haven't yet read a full-length novel by him.

Though sad, Measuring Time is an interesting novel, but it might bore you if you don't find history and/or politics interesting. I think Helon's aim was to make his reader aware (more aware) of the importance of knowing ones history, and the need to let the past guide one positively; changing things one can change and taking those one can't change as life lessons, and also to make the reader more aware of the ills of the society. I think it also gives a reader a glance into what Helon’s position is on how Westerners came to [Nigeria], successfully convincing themselves that they were bringing civilization to [Nigeria].


Set in Keti (a village in North Eastern Nigeria), Measuring Time is the story of a set of twins who were driven by anger. One of them was able to channel the anger into positivity, the other was blinded by his anger that he led himself to destruction. Initially, their focus was on how to make their father’s (Lamang’s) life a living hell.

Lamang was the village's most eligible bachelor. Widows and spinsters competed for his attention but his heart was with only one woman (Saraya). There was a young girl who had sicke-cell disease (Tabita) whose father was very wealthy. Tabitha's father offered Lamang a lot of fortune if he'ld marry his daughter, and Lamang agreed. Tabita died during childbirth, and Lamang walked out of the hospital, abandoning the twins, only to show up 3years after to uproot them from the life they'd always known. This caused the kids to detest him, more so because he never really did show them any love. They did everything to hurt him (in a way trying to get his attention) including intentionally getting him stung by a scorpion, but he just did not have the love in him to show them. This made them more angry and bitter.

The twins decided that they had to be famous and they thought of what they had to do to attain fame. One chose to join the army, and fought battles in Liberia, Mali..., and eventually in Keti. The other twin who inherited sickle-cell anaemia and as such did not have the physical fitness his twin had, went on to become an historical biographer.

The book did not go up to his days as a biographer but references were made to biographies he wrote. I think Helon would have been able to get away with claiming that the book is a memoir as the stories are not so far-fetched even outside of the Nigerian shores.

I wish Helon told us what later became of Zora (Soraya’s niece). Did Mamo eventually take Bintou as his wife? Or did he marry Zora? Or did he marry the two of them?

The title also refers to a stage in Mamo's life when he was out of job, out of school..., and waited patiently for a Ugandan professor to respond to his request to have an article published in his school's journal. In that stage of his life, all he did from sunrise to sunset was sit by and "measure[...] [the] time" it takes for the sun to set. During this lapse, he reviewed a book that a white missionary had written about Keti that he considered inaccurate/bogus, on some levels. He had sent a copy of the review to an English (or was it American) journal (or Newspaper, can't recall) but they refused to publish it saying they'ld gladly publish any article he has focusing on the AIDS epidemic or such topics. The other copy that was sent (by Zara) to the Ugandan professor got published.

Looking forward to reading your take.

Mar 8, 2007, 03:29 PM
I read his 1st novel "Waiting for an Angel" and I fell in love with Helon Habila. I remember doing some research on him back then. It kinda reminded me of "Kite Runner" (political unrest and how it affects diff lives – it is a sure page turner!). I felt myself transported into the world Helon created. I would definitely order "measuring time". I look forward to reading it.


Mar 14, 2007, 03:43 AM
I just received my copy of Helon Habila's Measuring Time from amazon, after reading its review in the Dallas Morning News.
But the book cover left me so depressed - picture of two naked, unkept, haggard looking boys, just as the west enjoys seeing Africans portrayed.

I hope the book makes a good read.

Mar 14, 2007, 04:04 AM
I just received my copy of Helon Habila's Measuring Time from amazon, after reading its review in the Dallas Morning News.
But the book cover left me so depressed - picture of two naked, unkept, haggard looking boys, just as the west enjoys seeing Africans portrayed.

I hope the book makes a good read.

Its funny I just got a copy from BN today. The cover is not that bad. I hope it is a good read too. I loved his 1st book so I am really looking forward to this one. Would keep you posted.


Mar 14, 2007, 06:41 PM
I just received my copy of Helon Habila's Measuring Time from amazon, after reading its review in the Dallas Morning News. But the book cover left me so depressed - picture of two naked, unkept, haggard looking boys, just as the west enjoys seeing Africans portrayed.

I hope the book makes a good read.

I hear yah. This comment really resonates with me. I had similar reaction until I read it and understood the point of the picture. I even went as far as checking the publication country, just because of that cover.

I guess this is a classical case of not judging the book by it's cover. Or… maybe not.

May 26, 2007, 01:58 PM
var sbtitle9694=encodeURIComponent(Measuring T...Read the full article. (http://www.nigeriavillagesquare.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=6139)

Aug 5, 2007, 10:52 PM
This is one of the better books I have read in the past months, by a Nigerian author. Helon Habila is clearly a master of the written word, and somehow you feel he emphatises with his characters in a way that you would normally associate with female writers. He also breathes life into the cultural and geographical landscape of Northern Nigeria (e.g. using the baobab tree), showing the reader another part of our country which is oft neglected in Nigerian literature.

The book does have a few shortcomings - namely the interludes where LaMamo writes the oddly superficial letters to his sickly twin, Mamo. These letters somehow interrupt the flow of the novel, leaving it disjointed at some parts. There also the tension between the author writing in Americanized English, and the characters, based in a Northern Nigerian community, speaking 'Nigerian' English, which may confuse the reader. A few of the chapters also read like short stories in themselves and not parts of a whole, and some critics have argued that Helon is better in the short-story genre than the full novel.

One of the most powerful messages for me, was the self-realisation of Mamo, where he slowly grows into himself as he accepts certain truths that he has long ignored. The book has a happy ending of sorts, for the romantics among us, but I wont be a spoiler :-). Habila is a true wordsmith, in my opinion, and as he says, he has his eyes set on Achebe's legacy, so I eagerly await his next offering.

Below is a review of Measuring Time in the UK Guardian.


The power of two

Helon Habila's investigation of Nigerian politics and community, Measuring Time, impresses Giles Foden

Saturday February 10, 2007
The Guardian

Buy Measuring Time at the Guardian bookshop

Measuring Time
by Helon Habila
383pp, Hamish Hamilton, 16.99
Twins, quadratures and syzygies have long been part of Nigerian literature and myth, usually as a challenge to views of society based on the primacy of the individual. Given the way the country has gone, Nigeria now being a byword for scheming selfishness and corruption, it seems no accident that twins should play such a big role in the late renaissance of the Nigerian novel, as illuminated by Helon Habila, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Helen Oyeyemi.

That renaissance is a phenomenon for which any lover of African literature must be grateful, for not since the early 1970s has much emerged from the continent that has been able to make a global impact. There are many reasons for this, but chief among them is the paralysing connection between a breakdown of societal mechanisms (including publishing) and the wider degradation of what might be described as "citizenship memory" - something by no means limited to Africa.
Oyeyemi's beguiling novel The Icarus Girl dealt with relationships between twins and doubles as a way into cultural difference. Twins also feature in Adichie's exceptional Half of a Yellow Sun, as do themes of religion, tribal loyalty and education in exactly the type of civic renovation with which the younger generation of Nigerian novelists have tasked themselves. It is a hard ideal but a crucial one, for civil society can only be re-established in Africa through a proper understanding of history.

Habila, Caine prizewinner and author of the acclaimed Waiting for an Angel, has also written a novel in which twins and history are central. It is a very subtle piece of work in which the story of a family and community in northern Nigeria in the 1980s and early 90s is woven into a wider sociopolitical narrative, touching on education, responsibility, the colonial inheritance and the mythic substratum of folklore.

Habila's twins, Mamo and LaMamo, have nearly the same name, but are very different characters. Mamo is an awkward invalid (he has sickle-cell anaemia), whereas LaMamo is strong and bold. Having lost their mother in childbirth, they are unified only in hatred of their father, Lemang, a selfish lothario who pays them scant attention. By way of revenge they put scorpions in the shoes of this failed parent, who stands allegorically for years of failed national leaders.

After a strange scene in which the twins murder a witch's dog, rubbing rheum from its eyes into their own to enable them to see ghosts, they decide to run away and join the army - only for Mamo, suffering an anaemic crisis, to turn tail. He will not see his brother for 20-odd years, though letters tell of time spent fighting in various mercenary armies in Chad, Mali and Liberia.

Mamo becomes a local historian and schoolteacher, all the while struggling with his father and his illness. Lemang is transformed into a wealthy businessman and politician. His star rises high until his plan to bring water to the dusty land by a process called "reverse osmosis" is stolen by a rival. Mamo's school becomes an electoral pawn. Done as high farce, these scenes of political infighting are very amusing, but the serious burden - nothing less than the future of a country - is always booming away in the background.

Chosen by the waziri (vizier) of the local mai, or emir, to write a history of the mai's rule and family, Mamo's own fortunes rise as his father's decline. He has a passionate love affair with a woman called Zara, who, in another parallel, also wants to be a writer, and settles into a new life as the mai's secretary. But things are not what they seem, and Mamo realises he must foil the wily waziri's schemes.

Readers will remember the scheming Sam Adekunle in William Boyd's A Good Man in Africa, drawn from the wonderful waziri in Joyce Cary's 1939 novel Mister Johnson, which Boyd adapted for the screen. What is exciting about Habila is that he combines these western literary archetypes with a much older, oracular style of African tale-telling in which the novel becomes part of the oral narrative tapestry of a particular community. The book also integrates many themes of the modern African novel, from the journey undertaken by LaMamo as a version of the traditional initiatory excursion, to the equivalent quest of the hero, Mamo, for true wisdom.

Measuring Time is both a historical novel that "measures time" in the sense of comparing historical periods, and a psychological study of a man who must "measure up" to his brother and the critical demands of a society in crisis. Most importantly of all, however, it is a triumphant celebration of relativism. By the end, in spite of abounding tragedies, Mamo has discovered that the secret of survival lies not in individualism but in exactly the sort of oscillatory in-between-ness that his twinship exemplifies.

Aug 6, 2007, 05:56 AM
This is one of the better books I have read in the past months, by a Nigerian author.

I guess I 'll take your word and those of others for it and order the book. Sounds like it will make for an interesting read.

Later o.

Aug 8, 2007, 01:09 PM
Here is another view of time