The defining emotion of the West African novel seems to be existential despair. From Chinua Achebe’s stories of corruption and social collapse to Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Nigerian child soldier Sozaboy, a vein of pervasive hopelessness runs through the writing of a region that has witnessed the slide of postindependence dreams into civil war and chaos. In Helon Habila’s first novel, “Waiting for an Angel,” Lomba, a young Nigerian journalist imprisoned during the despotic regime of Sani Abacha, writes poetry in his cell and narrates the story of the events leading to his arrest. The unforgiving Lagos of this book echoes the Accra of Ayi Kwei Armah’s novel “The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born,” perhaps the purest distillation of West African anomie, whose nameless petty-official protagonist wanders listlessly through an urban landscape that is invested with a nightmarish, Kafkaesque bleakness.
“Measuring Time,” Habila’s accomplished second novel, overlays this tradition of despair with a self-consciously mythic plot that brings the book to the borders of that definitively “postcolonial” style, magic realism. It tells the story of twin brothers, Mamo and LaMamo, brought up by a controlling, status-obsessed father in the village of Keti in northeastern Nigeria. As twins they know that in the past they would have been objects of fear and suspicion, left out to die on ground that is now the site of the village churchyard. The layering of worldviews — in Keti’s case, Nigerian modernity over Protestant missionary Christianity over traditional tribal religion — is a recognizably magic-realist construction, but whereas in a García Márquez novel the buried past would erupt fantastically through the rational present, for Habila, the spell never quite works.
When Mamo walks past the churchyard he feels “the presence of the spirits with a great intensity,” feels “them hanging in the air, stifled, sad,” but this is to be no Ben Okri-esque festival of wondrous ghosts. The twins hear that dogs can see spirits, and if they rub rheum from a dog’s eye into their own, this power will be conferred on them; they carry out an elaborate plan to kill an animal belonging to an old woman locally rumored to be a witch, but instead of supernatural sight, Mamo gets an eye infection and LaMamo fractures his leg falling out of a tree.
These mishaps are clues to the twins’ fictional destinies. Whereas LaMamo is fearless and athletic, Mamo is suffering from sickle cell anemia, and the novel tracks their divergent lives, one as a soldier for hire in various West African wars, the other in Keti, where he works first as a schoolteacher, then as secretary to a local ruler. It is the scholar Mamo’s perspective that dominates; his sickliness and sense of loss make him a recognizably Nigerian hero, wounded as much by his own sensitivity and moral integrity as by the various personal tragedies that befall him. LaMamo appears only intermittently, in the form of infrequent and poorly worded letters home, which describe a violent, tragic life. He turns into a semimythic figure for his brother, representing the possibilities of the road not taken, the path of action instead of contemplation.
Keti’s failed magic does not lie just in the absence of spirits. It also has more tangible causes. Corruption, unemployment and lack of infrastructure have created a kind of entropy, which thwarts all attempts to improve things. Mamo’s uncle sets up a school that does valuable work training local youths, but it falls foul of regional politics and is closed. The modern slaughterhouse is abandoned, its fixtures looted, its concrete structure having become a shelter for rats and snakes. Mamo struggles against this tendency toward dissipation, disastrously intervening in his father’s political machinations and brushing up against various figures from the local elite, “women in stiff, towering head scarves ... standing hand in hand with the pot-bellied, fat-jowled, slit-eyed ‘big men,’ into whose ears they whispered while their eyes feverishly scanned the room for their next mark.”
Surrounded by social-climbing army officers and bored, predatory good-time girls, Mamo finds that writing is his only defense against Keti’s decay. As a young boy, he notes down the words to the orally transmitted Christmas play, which tells the story of the missionary Nathan Drinkwater’s arrival in the community in 1918. “The climax came when the reverend stormed the village’s central shrine to knock the peaceful-looking idols from their stands and then, Bible in one hand and idol in the other ... angrily turned and faced the surprised crowd.” Mamo’s text is adopted by the players, and is still being performed many years later. The success of words in fixing memory is one of the dominant themes of “Measuring Time,” and gives the title a positive sense along with its parallel nod to Mamo’s boredom and lack of purpose.
As an adult, Mamo comes across Drinkwater’s prejudiced and error-riddled book about the area’s customs and decides to write a “revisionist” history. The essay is published in a Ugandan journal and makes him a prominent regional figure. Unwillingly, he accepts a commission to write a biography of the local emir. Eventually, he conceives of a piece of historical writing based on related biographical sketches, in the manner of Plutarch’s “Parallel Lives,” a book that had been sent to him by a mentor. He hopes that this work will give something lasting to his community and help him make sense of his position in the world. Fragments of Mamo’s “biographies” appear in “Measuring Time,” and their composition provides almost the only unproblematic note of hope in the novel, a suggestion that Mamo may achieve his childhood dreams of fame and find some degree of personal peace.
“Measuring Time” itself gives discomforting hints of being part of a larger project. Plot lines are picked up and discarded. Even when LaMamo returns from the wars, he remains a vague figure and is quickly dropped, as if Habila doesn’t remember why he was interested in him. In the end the book meanders to a halt, as if overwhelmed by its own despondency. But this somehow seems a fitting end to a melancholy narrative of a fight against decay, a struggle for hope in a cynical world.