30 Novels, day 24: "Time is life itself, and life resides in the human heart."


30 Novels day 24: Momo, by Michael Ende

Every novel has its own time. Or it is its own time.

There are a few novels that I keep coming back to, over and over again. Each time I read one of these books, I return to not only to its story, but to its time as well. The same events that were happening the last time I read the novel start happening all over again. I may have changed in the intervening years, and my understanding of the book may have changed, but the events of the novel unfold as they did before.

A lot of time can go by in a novel – hours, days, even years – but when I leave the book and return to my own world, I usually find, sometimes to my surprise, that only a short time has passed.

(I’ve wondered if the opposite might happen: that one day I might spend only a few brief moments or hours with a book and then leave it to discover that in my own reality years have gone by.)

Michael Ende is better known for The Neverending Story, a wonderful book in its own right. But in many ways I prefer his earlier, shorter novel Momo. It describes what happens to us, to the world, when we think of time as a commodity, a resource, a possession (as we think of just about everything else). We believe time is something we have a certain amount of, and that if we’re not careful with it our time can be taken away from us by others. We act as if time is something we can save, like money in a bank. In fact we do bank it, for example when we save up sick time or vacation time from work and then “spend” it later. 

In the novel, Momo the homeless child discovers that the sinister men in grey are stealing time from the people of her city. They do this by promoting the idea of Timesaving among the populace. People start to deposit their time with the men in grey, and soon all anyone can think about is saving more time. They start giving up on all activities that have come to seem like a waste of time: like play, art, friendship, even sleep. Soon they are stressed out, miserable, but still obsessed with saving time. Sound familiar?

It’s up to Momo to find a way to stop the grey men. She alone understands that by thinking of time in this way, we don’t save anything, in fact we lose something precious. 

As David Loy and Linda Goodhew write in their insightful study of modern fantasy The Dharma of Dragons and Daemons, the people of Momo’s city try to “save something that cannot be saved because time is not something we can ever have. We can only be it.”

Or as the narrator of Momo says, “Time is life itself, and life resides in the human heart.”

Collage by T Wharton

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