Once upon a time, I traveled to Germany for my junior year abroad. There, in addition to my regular university classes, I took one class from the school for outlander students, a look at German children’s literature. I read a great many enjoyable books in that class, even though the professor was one of those tedious types who thinks that fantasy literature needs to be a metaphor that can be explained away into normal reality. Momo was my favorite book, one that I soon found was also a favorite of my new German friends. I was scared off of ever trying an English translation, because the American in the class who’d tried to get away with reading it in English found it so different that she wasn’t able to follow the discussion in class.
So I went along, re-reading the book in German to myself every few years (until I loaned it to a German friend here who seemed to need it, and never got it back), but with no way to share it with my children, who don’t speak German. I was very excited when I heard of a new English translation, and very grateful to get my own copy for Christmas this year.
Momo by Michael Ende. Drawings by Michael Dzama. Translated by Lucas Zwirner. McSweeney’s McMullins, 2013. Originally published in Germany, 1973.
Once upon a time, to a city in a country that sounds very much like Italy, a little girl came to live. She had no family, and she wouldn’t stay with anyone, but she had a superpower: the ability to listen to people so intently that she brought out the best in everyone. Soon the abandoned amphitheater where she lives is the center of town, with people of all ages, but especially children, coming to talk and play together.
Then things change. Her friends stop coming – first the adults, and then the children. When she visits them to find out what has happened, people say they don’t have time anymore. Only accidentally does she learn that there are gray men who are stealing people’s time under the pretense of keeping it banked for later use. But as Momo is the only one who can remember them when they’re gone, it’s up to her to stop them and get the people back their time.
I didn’t, of course, have my German copy with me while I read, but the translation felt accurate. I could tell that names hadn’t been changed, and I don’t think I’ve ever read a book translated from German that went so far towards accuracy as to refer to children as “it” instead of “he” or “she”, as this one did. There was nothing that struck me as out of place, at any rate.
When I first read this, my friends told me it was like The Little Prince. In some ways it is, except that I always felt that The Little Prince was all message with not enough of a real plot to hold it together. Momo has a very obvious message about the importance of spending time with the people you love, but the plot actually holds its own. It’s more wandering than I’d remembered – divided into several parts, each with its own plot. The first part spends a whole chapter describing an imaginary adventure that Momo and the neighborhood children have, to no end other than showing the marvelous effect Momo has on the children’s imaginations. Going back, his visions of ideal parenting seem perhaps more nostalgic than realistic. But the “Graue Herren” or gray gentlemen are some of the most chilling storybook villains I’ve ever read about, and the imagery of the beautiful hour blossoms that bloom each hour inside everyone are unforgettable.
As a general reminder of the importance of imagination and time with loved ones over efficiency for its own sake, Momo has a message that’s needed even more today than it was when it was first published. It’s been a bestseller all over the world – people I’ve talked to from many countries have remembered it as a favorite book. Hopefully this new translation will help it gain the place it deserves as a classic in English-speaking countries as well.