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‘Measuring Time’, Helon Habila, The Independent On Sunday

‘‚Ķimages so strong they stick like personal memories’

Nigeria’s Helon Habila came into print the hard way. He had to borrow money and publish his first novel, Waiting For An Angel, himself. An extract, Love Poems, won the Caine Prize for African short stories in 2001. That changed his life. Waiting For An Angel, an electric account of lives crushed by Nigerian martial law told in cleverly time-shuffled chapters, then won a Commonwealth Writers Prize.

Habila’s second novel, Measuring Time, takes the long chronological journey through lives. The pivotal ones are bookish Mamo, sickly from sickle cell anaemia, and bold, extrovert LaMamo. They are twin sons of Lamang, a philandering cattle merchant in Keti, backwoods Northern Nigeria. Their mother died in childbirth and they are raised by kind, gentle Auntie Marina. Lamang is indifferent to the boys.

Inseparable, they spend their childhood longing for excitement, and run away with their cousin Asabar to join the army. At the crucial moment Mamo suffers one of sickle cell’s periodic, debilitating crises. LaMamo’s departure is like an amputation.

After being rejected by the army as too young, LaMamo joins a rebel army in Chad. Asabar returns, homesick, and accompanies Lamang on a humiliating sortie into politics. The twins seem doomed, Mamo by a disease that usually kills young, LaMamo by war.

But Measuring Time is about endurance. Mamo endures a university career truncated by sickle cell, the closure of the school where he teaches, the love of his life, Zara, wandering off. LaMamo endures Africa’s wars, developing a shield of honour by fighting only for just causes.

This is an admirably epic book, reaching from village life to Africa’s political seismic shifts. As a novel it is hard to fault, as a second novel it is remarkable, because while Habila is vivid he also has a mature discipline. He gives us just enough detailed colour to bring Keti and its characters to life without overshadowing Mamo; just enough letters home from LaMamo to keep us worried (very) about his fate; just enough humour to balance the melancholy. And he has a good ear, for LaMamo’s African-English letters, Mamo’s educated hesitancy, the Nigerian recruiting sergeant’s pidgin.

His greatest skill though is in narrative-encapsulating images so strong they stick like personal memories: Mamo, wrecked by loneliness, sleeping in his brother’s empty bed; LaMamo gutting a chicken with unnerving dispassion for blood.

The only weakness is Zara. Beautiful, emotionally scarred, mysterious, she doesn’t convince like Keti’s dust-caked women farmers or good, enduring Auntie Marina. And if the narrative droops, you feel Habila is deliberately dipping us into the occasional stagnation of Mamo’s Keti-bound life.

What about LaMamo? To give his dramatic fate would spoil a book you really should read. It is not only a great monument to brotherly love. When Mamo submits a review of a missionary’s memoir to a British African journal, he is invited to submit articles on Aids or genital circumcision instead. To the journal, Africans are only sponges for issue-related pain. Measuring Time reminds us how much, much more any person is than that.

22 April 2007

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