Book Review: “Momo” by Michael Ende

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by Michael Ende

The author of The Neverending Story wrote this book in the German language, while living in Italy. This tells you three very special things about this story. First, it is a beautiful, thrilling, and thought-provoking fantasy conceived by a great storyteller. Second, it comes to us in English through the very gifted J. Maxwell Brownjohn, whom I take to be the same as John Brownjohn, translator of Mimus (by Lilli Thal) and other German-to-English marvels. And third, its setting and characters have the warmth and vitality of Italy and Italians viewed through the eyes of love.

Momo is the name of a little girl who has no parents or guardian. She does not go to school. She does not live in an orphanage or foster home. In fact, Momo lives in the space under the stage of an old, ruined amphitheatre outside an unnamed Italian city. Her only food and home furnishings are things other people have brought her. And all she gives them in return is a listening ear. But that is enough. Momo is so good at listening that it almost qualifies as a magical gift. Grown-ups come to her, pouring out their problems and their conflicts, and – without Momo saying a word – go away knowing what they have to do. Boys and girls come to Momo’s amphitheatre to play, knowing that each game they invent while Momo is there will be better than the last.

But then the gray men come, men with gray cars, gray suits, gray briefcases, and gray cigars. The gray men are time thieves, swindling the good folk of Momo’s city – man, woman, and child – out of all their time for rest, joy, imagination, and friendship, and leaving them with nothing but hustle and bustle, worry and crabbiness. When Momo’s listening skills enable her to see through – I mean hear through – the gray men’s scheme, she becomes their enemy in a conflict that could save or destroy time itself, and all life with it. Such a poor little girl against such great and numerous enemies, and who does she have on her side but a strange old man and a tortoise with an LCD shell?

This book is full of marvels. It depicts beauty, goodness, friendship, and fun that will warm your heart. It takes them away with a swiftness that will break your heart. And it sends Momo on a quest to get them back again, a quest that will make your heart beat with excitement. Plus, as a parable about the labor-saving and time-saving devices that are somehow multiplying our labor and stealing our time away, it is also a dangerous kind of book: a book that might make you stop and think.

By the way, there was an earlier English translation of this book, published as The Grey Gentleman. I have never heard anyone praise that book, but dozens of readers have written urging me to read Momo and declaring it one of their favorite books. I must agree that it is one of the best books I have read this year. Take it from one who knows, you won’t regret the time or effort of hunting down a used copy of this modern classic.