It is 1998 or 1999. I am not so sure, but I remember that Helon Habila and I were sitting in a shack outside the huge compound of the African Independent Television (AIT) in Alagbado, a dusty, sleepy village on the outskirts of Lagos.
Helon is smoking and we are both drinking. Or maybe I am smoking too. It is no longer so easy to tear through the encroaching webs of time to filch out exact memories. But I remember that we were sitting out there and waiting for someone.
We were both working as journalists then or writers as we preferred to call ourselves because what we did was churn out stories with a bias for the romantic and melodramatic at a dizzying pace. Helon was on my staff at Hints Magazine which was, with the presence of Helon, David Njoku, Peter Okwoche and my self (all of us graduates of the University of Jos) on its staff, witnessing its golden age and what our boss liked to call the “Unijos invasion.”
As we wait, Helon is telling me a story. One of the many stories and poems he has an uncanny way of writing in his head. He tells me the story is part of a novel, which he is calling Measuring Time.
“Have you written this one?” I asked taking a swig from my bottle.
“No. I have written it in my head,” Helon says then goes ahead to tell me the story of twin brothers named Hassan and Hussein whose over-riding ambition is to escape their father’s sway. He tells me of how they finally put their plan to action but things go wrong when the sickly twin is forced to go back because he has a crisis on their way out.
Back home, the sickly twin is confronted by his angry father who demands to know where they thought they were headed.
“Timbuktu,” his son said.
“And how did you intend to get there?” the father asks.
“We just wanted to go,” Habila tells me and at that instant, the creator is one with his creature, as he stares into the distance.
I am surprised years later, when in 2003 as I was putting finishing touches to my debut novel in Germany, Helon sends me a draft of his sophomore novel entitled Measuring Time. As I read the story he has sent me I see that the twins are still there, one is still sickly and their attempt at escape ends for the sickly twin at a washed-out bridge.
I smile when I read the part about his confrontation with his father when he returns and I see that the dialogue has not changed.
“And how did you intend to get there?” the father asks.
“We just wanted to go,” Mamo tells their scowling father.
Truly, Helon had written that novel in his head!
The story is like he told it years ago. It is the story of a people, an epic chronicling their migration, their battles to take over a fecund land. There is black magic and heroic deeds, but at the end it is the story of the brothers and their father; of one who travels to distant lands to fight in strange wars and the sickly one, who unable to travel physically, embarks on mental flights of fancy as a fledgling writer of history.
Time passes and it is 2007. I have just received a copy of Helon Habila’s Measuring Time published by W.W Norton & Company Ltd, New York and soon to be released in Nigeria by Cassava Republic Press. As I read, I see that the black magic is gone. There are no warriors turning into eagles and snakes. The story is more rooted in reality. The twins are there and their father is still brooding and distant. There is something else. The story of the family has grown political muscles becoming in many ways the story of the dissipation of a neo-colonial state trying to make the transition from feudalism to democracy. But above all else, the story has become very autobiographical with Helon’s life peeping out through the pages.
What has happened? The story I heard years ago has gone through the grind. Between the writer’s study, the editor’s office and the publisher’s headquarters the story has lost a lot of its essence which is why I believe it doesn’t pack the punch of the original. It has been tinkered with to make it more appealing to its intended audience, which isn’t surprising since publishing is a business.
Helon Habila, who turns forty on November 16 2007, has come a long way from his days as a writer of factory-line style short stories for a magazine that catered to the needs of lovesick, young girls and bored housewives. He became world famous after his short story won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2001. Post-Caine Prize Helon published a critically acclaimed and award winning novel, Waiting for an Angel, a novel that featured multi-narrative strands held organically together by the recurring character, Lomba.
Measuring Time, his second novel is a much more realized work, composed on an epical scale. On the surface, the novel which plays out in Keti, a small Northern Nigerian town on the cusp of change, is about twins, Mamo and LaMamo who couldn’t be more different.
While Mamo is introspective, weak and studious, his brother LaMamo is extroverted, strong and barely literate. After a long lost uncle washes up in the village years after the civil war had ended, the twins who have been seeking ways of escaping from under the sway of their totalitarian father are infected with the germ of adventure: “We could be famous as soldiers,” they tell each other.
They plan to abscond with their cousin Asabar, but at the end it is only LaMamo who escapes from the village. Asabar and Mamo do not make it out like they had dreamed; the pull of the hearth is too strong.
Mamo’s disappointment turns out to be a blessing of sorts because he, the weak one, is the one who achieves the fame they had dreamed of as children. Using his gifts, Mamo becomes first, a teacher and then, a historian, chronicling the history of his people.
Using the book, Parallel Lives by Roman historian Plutarch as a model, Helon tells through Mamo’s words with reference to the descent into chaos and dissipation in his small village, a story that raises fundamental questions about love, family, and destiny. Mamo does not travel like his brother, but the trips he is unable to make physically, he embarks through his works. And in the end it is not the strong who survives.
Helon also makes us question what history is, which version is real or true and how much subjectivity is needed in historical writing. Measuring Time is also about the challenges facing a new nation and the crass avarice and corruption that is rife in the ranks of the privileged.
The characters that people this novel are well realised and help the author extend the boundaries of myth-making. Yam, the one-eared servant had once been turned into a yam, Toma or “One Leg,” the village raconteur, claims to have met the poet Christopher Okigbo during the war.
Measuring Time, is in many ways, Helon’s own Parallel Lives: Mamo and LaMamo, Lamang and his brother Ilya, Zara and her sister Rhoda as well as Keti and Nigeria.
By introducing the characters of George and Hamza as well as the Mai and Waziri and even Lamang and Asabar who are small time political jobbers, Helon adds politics into the mix, showing how greedy and rapacious men of power help to perpetuate the corruption and anomie in the polity.
The long intricately plotted story told in lucid prose is a pessimistic and deeply disturbing take on the story of neo-colonial Africa. It is however important to emphasise that the bloody clash which causes major tectonic shifts in the community does not enshroud the story in a pall of despair because the book ends with hope as Helon writes: “Above the hills the clouds have thickened brushing the surface of the hills. The rain will fall today.”
While Measuring Time is indisputably a work of fiction, certain elements in the narrative are lifted almost directly from the author’s life. Mamo’s life is very identical to his creator’s. While Habila had no twin brother, he was sickly as a young man and actually did drop out of school where he had enrolled as a science student before returning to the University of Jos where he eventually took a degree in English Literature. Meanwhile, his elder brother joined the military just like LaMamo.
Helon’s father who was a preacher died in a car accident which threw the young man into depression for a time. That incident lies at the root of the death of Bola’s father’s in the novel Waiting for an Angel. After his father’s death. Helon found solace in reading and then writing, the germs of which had been stoked by his father who made the young boy read Hausa texts like the classic Magana ja ri ce. His vocation did not only offer escape, it offered him a route to fame.
What began as a childhood fascination would in time become a vocation that would lead to fame and fortune; a book deal in the US, the the UK and even in languages Habila can’t read, shared taxi cab rides with J.M Coetzee and reading tours across the western hemisphere. I recall now what he told me when he got the Dutch edition of his debut novel: “The only thing wey I sabi inside na my name.”
To bring these recollections to a close, let me talk about a part of Measuring Time and how the incidents came about. Habila hails from a small town in what is present day Gombe State. Back when we were starry-eyed undergrads at the University of Jos, Kaltungo was in Bauchi State and gained temporary notoriety when NTA News Line ran a story on the famous snakes of Kaltungo, a town where it was not uncommon to open your pot of soup and find a snake curled up inside. In fact. the story of Reverend Drinkwater in Measuring Time derives in some measure from the story of the snakes. When missionaries arrived Kaltungo and found that it was rife with snakes, they introduced pigs which feed on snakes and which are in turn not affected by snake venom. But that is not the story I wish to close with.
Being a writer in a small and still provincial town confers respectability and a measure of fame. Because come to think of it, writing is both alchemy and magic. By stringing letters to letters and word to word, we build eternal monuments. About 1997 -98, Habila began writing the biography of the king of Kaltungo. The biography of the Mai Kaltungo went on smoothly helped along by the fact of Habila’s endless fascination with history and the impulses that drive human actions. But it was to suffer a terrible setback towards the end when a short while to the launch, the Mai Kaltungo became impaired, a situation that put paid to the elaborate launch that had been planned for the book.
The story of Measuring Time especially in the latter part with the Mai and his Iago-like Waziri as well as the parallels to the Mai Kaltungo fiasco is so clear that we can see art consciously mimicking real life. And the fact that the Mai Kaltungo incident made it into Measuring Time is no accident because the failure to launch that project must remain, aside from Helon’s father’s untimely death, the single most harrowing incident of his forty years on earth.