Momo by Michael Ende is among the greatest children’s novels ever written. The central themes within its slight 236 page count are possibly more relevant in 2018 than when the book was first published in 1973.
It was upon the realization, that I’d just discovered this masterwork in storytelling, that I was eager to explore how others regarded it and where it sat historically.
The BBC made a list of the best children’s books of all time. It was curated by a transatlantic crew of writers and critics alike, yet the top 11 books they chose, caused controversy among a great many including a number of renown writers themselves.
Few could argue that E.B White’s Charlotte’s Web topping the list was a bad choice, it wasn’t; it was an interesting one. Rather, it was the absence on the list, of most everything published for kids after the 1960’s that gave it an overwhelming sense of oversight. It was the lack of anything published outside of the U.K and the U.S.A that struck me as short-sighted.
I’m a huge fan of the original Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, yet in 2017, the seminal duo-logy is a clunky curiosity of a read and it could be said that their value to the canon of children’s literature outweighs their narrative verve. It placed 4th, ahead of A.A Milne’s Tales from Pooh Corner which written only a decade later, had a writing voice that arguably better stands the test of time. A Wizard of Earthsea is likely the best YA book before YA was a thing, that too found a place on the list at 9.
Momo published in 1973 and written by German writer Michael Ende, is nowhere to be seen in this list and most lists like it, which begs the question, are these lists anglocentric? Favoring the British and American written books above all others. It certainly seems to be the case.
Germany has a rich history children’s storytelling, dating back to the Brothers Grimm and Michael Ende is its modern champion. Yet where he may have lacked the prolific oeuvre of contemporaries such as Roald Dahl, he made up for it in the sheer quality of his storytelling. Central to his opus is none other than The Neverending Story: considered by many to be a revelation and one which of course was adapted by Hollywood and became one of the dark fantasy children’s films that characterized 1980’s cinema (see also: E.T, The Goonies, Labyrinth, Flight of the Navigator, Stand by Me, and Explorers,).
If The Neverending Story was his magnum opus, Momo was his tour de force and with its timely theme of how people spend their time, might bring it back into the limelight for a second wind. Typically glimpsed as a paperback with an unassuming and shoe-less girl in tattered over-sized clothes holding a tortoise on its cover. What lies within though is a fantasy masterwork with a villain that makes Voldemort and the death eaters seem like caricatures of an imagined evil. Momo doesn’t wield a wand yet her story brims with magic. Momo’s power is her ability to listen to others on a level so profound that she helps them to transcend life’s everyday challenges. She is an absolutely endearing character.
No one knows from where Momo came, she simply turns up one day in a forgotten amphitheater on the outskirts of Rome. There she lives in a little room built into the amphitheater and there she is visited by all of the local folks who comprise the Rome’s lower class. These are people, much like Dahl’s Bucket family in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, who live from one day to the next and see only the bright side of life. Key among them are Momo’s two most endearing friends, Beppo Roadsweeper and Guido Guide whose surnames are telling of their vocation in life. Beppo sweeps the streets of Rome with pride and dedication yet cannot express himself in words well enough for others to have the patience to listen. That is except, for Momo. Meanwhile Guido Guide, who is as homeless as Momo, seduces tourists with his wildly flamboyant historical accounts of Rome and afterwards, collects coins in his beret. Guido’s tales grow and are helped by Momo’s encouragement which she delivers simply by listening so attentively, while Beppo, who could be imagined to be dyslexic or a stutterer, is able to express the pride he feels when he does a good job.
It is an idyllic era that the story is set though it could be imagined that the changes taking place in the 1970’s when it was written inspired the dramatic shift in the book and the arrival of the villains: The Men in Grey.
‘Time is life itself, and life resides in the human heart. The men in grey knew this better than anyone. Nobody knew the value of an hour or a minute or even of a single second, as well as they. They were experts on time just as leeches are experts on blood, and they acted accordingly.’
Operating in the shadows, the men in grey are omnipresent villains of genuine menace with no specific member ever taking the spotlight. There is no real leader but rather a nebulous bureaucracy, in which each of them have names such as Agent No. XYQ/384/b. There is an original idea here that can be seen echoed in cinematic trends such as The Matrix or The Adjustment Bureau but nowhere is it as compelling as it is here.
The men in grey are harvesting time and storing it in their time saving bank, but how? or why? The reader slowly comes to suspect that their might be more to the cigars that they smoke than first meets the eye. They manage to slowly overwhelm the city and its inhabitants yet there is a spanner in the works, a thorn in their side and that happens to be none other than Momo, the homeless girl who has all the time in the world for others. The battle between Momo and the men in grey is not merely a battle of wits, everything is at stake.
So much of what Ende does with the men in grey is remarkable: the reader can sense their nefarious plotting and handiwork even when it isn’t explicitly state. Ende manages to create the feeling that the men in grey are lurking in between the lines or in the blank areas on the sides of the pages, or even looking over the readers shoulder. It is a remarkable construction.
Momo is a staggering work of modern fantasy with an endearingly intrepid hero and a villainous entity as menacing as 1984’s Big Brother. The supporting characters have arcs that form the narratives dramatic ebb and flow in unique and intriguing ways. Character and plot are seamlessly interwoven. Professor Hora and Cassiopeia (the tortoise who can see half an hour into the future) take the story to fantastical heights that leave the reader exhilarated. In an era in which children are growing up addicted to apps on tablets and endless ways to kill time, Momo should have a second life as a profoundly timely parable, that is if anyone finds the time to read it, and that itself, will depend on whether the men in grey are real or not.
T for Tortoise