Helon Habila's first novel, Waiting for an Angel, was a troubling and uplifting book set in 1990s Nigeria and concerned with resistance to Abacha's military dictatorship. Habila used different voices (a young journalist, a high-school student and an impassive third-person narrator) to speak to the conscience and to whatever other parts of us are suppressed when we fail to recognise that our happiness and suffering as individuals are inextricably linked to the fate of our fellows. The novel deservedly won high acclaim and the 2003 Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book.
Habila's second novel, Measuring Time, reflects a similarly acute awareness of the intensity with which the lives of his characters refract
the realities around them. Ultimately, neither Mamo, the protagonist and self-appointed biographer of his village, nor LaMamo, his soldier twin, can live independently of the enriching power of history and its ugly repetition. Sickle-cell sufferer Mamo battles the sense of being a weakling, and his Aunt Marina offers him the words he needs to survive a sickly childhood, surrounding him with stories of an altered past that cast his parents as a young couple in love
before his mother’s death during childbirth.
The brothers grow up in Keti, a contemporary Nigerian village still bracing itself against the
aftershock of colonial rule. All people want is to be able to determine their futures. Party politics has a strong presence in Keti, as does socio-economic status – Mamo and LaMamo's father, Lamang, a would-be politician preoccupied with "doing something" for the people around him, has influence because he is the biggest cattle merchant in the state. Lamang's model of politics may be genuinely geared towards serving the people, but it contrasts with his emotional distance from his sons. Locals gather at the gates of his house for TV dinners in front of the screen that he places outside of an evening for communal entertainment. Meanwhile, Mamo avoids him and would prefer Lamang’s brother Iliya, the kindly, learned headteacher of the local school, for a father.
When they were younger, LaMamo and Mamo punished Lamang for not loving them by putting scorpions in his shoes and in his bed. And for the rest of their lives, the twins sting their father again and again. They run away to join the army without telling him of their intentions. When Mamo's condition forces him to return home alone, he refuses to answer his father’s questions regarding LaMamo's whereabouts. He hides the rare, precious letters that LaMamo writes him.
Over time, the malice that keeps Mamo from showing LaMamo’s letters to his father is replaced by an equally paralysing guardedness taught by time and the pain of offering love that isn’t wanted. It’s not Lamang's lack of love for their mother that the twins hold him to account for, but his inability to force that failed love story into a new shape and take them to his heart. Habila's beautifully (and deceptively) simple style is matched by a story that is strong, clear and richly evocative. For a while, the young twins can't stop dreaming of a dead dog that they poison in the hope that its rheum will confer visionary powers on them. The dog lies "on its side in the grass, staring at them accusingly".
Mamo is only able to find purpose in his determination to tell a history of Keti "that looks at the lives of individuals, ordinary people who toil and dream and suffer, who bear the brunt of whatever vicissitude time inflicts on the nation". As it was, so it still is. It was accepted among Mamo's family that long-absent Uncle Haruna died in the Nigerian civil war. But Haruna comes home after all. Changed, damaged in invisible ways, he returns only to make rope and to die. LaMamo also gives himself to war and comes home to greet – for
different reasons from his uncle's – the death that didn't find him on battlefields in Chad and Liberia. This novel is so bitter, so sweet, so humbling. It says we will always be crushed by the times we live in. Where is the comfort? Maybe it is that, in memory, we return.