The novel Measuring Time by Helon Habila chronicles the parallel journeys of Mamo Lamang and his twin brother, LaMamo, growing up in the small village of Keti in Nigeria. The sons of a proud businessman and aspiring politician, Mamo and his brother grow together into teenage hood under the superficial and somewhat neglectful watch of their busy father. Toward the end of the first part of the book, however, the two boys split paths as LeMamo departs home to explore the world of war and international African adventure, leaving his physically weak, sickle cell-infected twin brother behind in Keti to his books and pursuit of an education with their increasingly politically ambitious father and alcoholic cousin. Habila depicts the two boys’ emotional and personal growths over time as they learn how to deal with issues like fame, education, family estrangement, and eventually love.
The passage of time is chronicled in distinctly different ways in the lives of the twins, and yet is portrayed equally with regard to what becomes significant in the boys’ experiences as they grow older. While the narration revolves mostly around the affairs of Mamo as he overcomes his sickle cell anemia and grows into an educated man, albeit one with turbulent compassion and corresponding resentment, the reader receives brief and acute glimpses into LaMamo’s chaotic life through the letters he sends home to LaMamo. Just as Habila so chooses to skip over certain long and less significant periods of time in Mamo’s passage into manhood from being a teenager, she manages to capture all that is equally significant and important to LaMamo’s life in his short but detailed writings to his twin. The passage of time in the very plot of the novel places allows for seemingly important matters, such as the boys’ father’s rapid change in party affiliation in his political career, to occur in only one sentence, and yet relays the significance of other crucial, yet seemingly less significant points of the novel in great deal, as exemplified in the detailed and recurring descriptions of Mamo’s frequent and contemplative walks around his village. In these important instances, Mamo learns to grasp time without his brother through the act of waiting “for something, anything to happen, and as he waited he measured time in the shadows cast by trees and walls, in the silence between one footfall and the next” (p. 139).
While LaMamo learns of the violent and inhumane nature of the world and his country’s future through witnessing the never-ending bloodshed and violence of warfare, Mamo in turn discovers and learns through his writing, through history and eventually working as a biographer writing an account of the history and growth of the village of Keti. With a mercurial rise to fame after publishing a commentary on a Western historical account of Keti, Mamo achieves the recognition in his village that he and his brother so constantly talk about and strive for earlier in the novel as children. While in their youth the boys idolize their estranged relative who wanders home the Biafran War scarred, and who notably commits suicide after a short while, the notion of the fame of the soldier becomes revealed in later years to be an apparition as demonstrated through the experiences of LaMamo, who after a certain point gives up his life as a soldier to help transport refugees and the wounded from camp (although with a simultaneous interest on following his heart with the girl whom he has fallen in love with). Love functions in the story as a force to lead the two boys from their prior notions of fame and fears of becoming inconsequential into enlightenment and reality. Habila demonstrates this truth early on at one point in the story through the account of Mamo and LaMamo’s difficult effort to obtain a piece of what appears to be silk fall from the window of a passing car—while the boys love and cherish their new treasure immediately as children, Mamo ultimately realizes after an inspection of it soon after his brother leaves that it is simply a piece of used muslin and has the fear “that all he had dreamt of being, the places he had dreamt of going, might not really exist in real life” (p. 142).
The story is essentially a tale of a fight to realize those things and places in the eyes of these two twins, while at the same time moving past those fears. Measuring Time is a story that demonstrates how fears of love, ambition, and the possibilities of individual potential must be overcome through experiences facing them firsthand. Even though a family such as the Lamangs can crumble and be torn apart by selfish desire and the coinciding fears that plague its members, they, like their village, as written in LaMamo’s biographical chronicles, must learn to take their losses in stride, without failing to notice the important things that are often overlooked by the characters and people around them.
Habila, Helon. Measuring Time: A Novel. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2007. Print.