translated by J. Maxwell Brownjohn
contributed by Jul
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky!
Jane Taylor (1783- 1827)
It was in this kind of city that the story of Momo took place.
"So… you like it here, do you?"
"And you want to stay here?"
"Yes, very much."
"I mean, shouldn't you go home?"
"This is my home," Momo said promptly.
"But where do you come from?"
Momo gestured vaguely at some undefined spot in the far distance.
"When were you born?"
"As far as I can remember... I've always been around."
"How old are you really?"
Momo hesitated. "A hundred," she said.
They all laughed because they thought she was joking.
"No seriously, how old are you?"
"A hundred and two," Momo replied, still more hesitantly.
Momo's installation in the old amphitheatre was celebrated as zestfully as only the poor of this world know how.
She became so important to them that they wondered how they had ever managed without her in the past. And the longer she stayed with them, the more indispensable she became so indispensable, in fact that their one fear was that she might some day move on.
Lots of things take time, and time was Momo's only form of wealth.
Momo was staring at them wide-eyed, but neither man quite knew how to interprete her gaze... Although her expression gave no clue, they suddenly seems to see themselves mirrored in her eyes and began to feel sheepish.
"Be honest, Salvatore, did you or didn't you know about the money before we made the deal."
"Of course I knew, or I wouldn't have gone through with it."
"In other words, you diddled me."
"What? You mean you really didn't know about the money?"
"No, I swear I didn't."
"There you are, then! It was you that tried to diddle me, or you wouldn't have taken my radio in exchange for a worthless scrap of newsprint."
"Was it a lot of money?"
"Only what my radio was worth."
Momo listened to everyone and everything... even to the rain and the wind and the pine trees - and all of them spoke to her after their own fashion.
Many were the evenings when... she would sit by herself in the middle of the old stoe amphitheatre, with the sky's starry vault overhead, and simply listen to the great silence around her.
Whenever she did this, she felt she was sitting at the centre of a giant ear, listening to the world of the Stars... On nights like these, she always had the most beautiful dreams.
Those who still think listening isn't an art should see of they can do it half as well.
Momo was there and joined in, that was all, but for some reason her mere presence put bright ideas into their heads.
"From what you say... it must be a Blancmagius viscosus."
"Perhaps... though it could equally be a Jellybeania multicolorata."
In [Professor Eisenstein's] opinion... [they're] dealing with a variety of the common Chocolatus indigestibilis"
[Momo] knew that Beppo took as long as he did because he was determined never to say anything untrue.
In [Beppo's] opinion, all the world's misfortunes stemmed from the countless untruths, both deliberate and unintentional, which people told because of haste or carelessness.
Step, breathe, sweep, breathe, step, breathe, sweep… Every so often he would pause a while, staring thoughfully into the distance. And then he would begin again: step, breathe, sweep…
"You see, Momo... it's like this. Sometimes, when you've a very long street ahead of you, you think how terribly long it is and feel sure you'll never get it swept... And then you hurry. You work faster and faster, and everytime you look up there seems to be just as much to sweep as before, and you try even harder…, and you panic, and in the end you're out of breath and have to stop-and still the street stretches away in from of you."
"I recognized us."
"There are stones from olden times, when the wall was first built. Many hands helped to build the wall, but those stones were put there by two particular people. They were meant as a sign, you see? [Beppo] recognized it... They were [Momo and Beppo]-[Beppo] recognized [Momo and himself]!"
Many of [the people] used to tap their heads meaningfully behind his back, but Momo loved him and treasured every word he uttered.
"I'm only doing what poets do," Guido would argue. "Who knows if the stuff in the guidebooks isn't made up too, only no on remembers any more. Besides, what do you mean by true and untrue? Who can be sure what happened here a thousand or two thousand years ago? Can you?"
"Even if there are times when I don't have the price of a cup of coffee, I'm still me. Guido's still Guido!"
[The men in grey] had an uncanny knack of making themselves so inconspicuous that you either overlooked them or forgot ever seeing them... Since nobody noticed them, nobody stopped to wonder where they had come from, or indeed, were still coming from, for their numbers continue to grow with every passing day.
[Guido's] stories had plodded along, so as to speak, but Momo's friendship had suddenly lent them wings.
"Which only goes to show, ladies and gentlemen, how unwise it is to believe all you're told."
"It is common knowledge that the cruel tyrant Marxentius Communis, nicknamed "the Red", resolved to mould the world to fit his own ideas. Try as he might... he found that people refused to change their ways and remained the same as they always had been. Towards the end of his life, Marxentius Communis went mad. The ancient world had no psychiatrists capable of curing such mental disorders,…so the tyrant continued to rave unchecked. He eventually took to his head to leave the existing world to its own devices and create a brand-new world of his own.
He therefore decreed the construction of a globe exactly the same size as the old ne, complete with perfect replicas of everything in it - every building and tree... The entire population of the earth was compelled, on pain of death, to assist in this vast project.
The sphere used up vast quantities of building materials... and these could only be taken from earth itself. So the earth got smaller and smaller while the sphere got bigger and bigger..
By the time the new world was finished, very last little scrap of the old world had been carted away. What was more, the whole of mankind had naturally been obliged to move to the new world because the old one was all used up. When it dawned on Marxentius Communis that, despite all his efforts, everything was just as it had been, he buried his head in his toga and tottered off. Where to, no one knows.
"In other words, you must picture everything upside down."
"But what became of Marxentius Communis's world?"
"Why, you're standing on it right now… Our world, ladies, is his!"
"Did [Princess Momo and Prince Girolamo] ever get married?"
"I think so… later on."
"Are they dead now?"
"No… I happen to know that for a fact. The magic mirror only made you mortal if you looked into it on your own. If two people looked into it together, it made them immortal again, and that's what those two did."
Momo and Guido sat there side by side, gazing up at ['big silver moon'] for a long time and feeling quite certain that, if only for the space of that enchanted moment, the pair of them were immortal.
Life holds one great but quite commonplace mystery. Though shared by each of us and known to all, seldom rates a second thought. That mystery, which most of us take for granted and never think twice about, is time.
Calendars and clocks exist to measure time, but that signifies little because we all know that an hour can seem as eternity or pass in a flash, according to how we spend it.
Time is life itself, and life resides in the human heart.
"Exactly what form the right kind of life should take, Mr Figaro wasn't sure. He vaguely pictured it as a distinguished and affluent existence such as he was always reading about in glossy magazines.
"The trouble is… my work leaves me no time for that sort of thing, and you need time for the right kind of life. You've got to be free, but I'm a lifelong prisoner of scissors, lather and chitchat."
"I'm from the Timesaving Bank. Permit me to introduce myself: Agent No. XYQ/384/b. We hear you wish to open an account with us."
"You're wasting your life cutting hair,lathering faces and swapping idle chitchat. When you're dead, it'll be as if you'd never existed. If you only had the time to lead the right kind of life, you'd be quite a different person. Time is all you need, right?"
"Surely you know how to save time, my dear sir? Work faster, for instance, and stick to the essentials. Spend only fifteen minutes on each customer, instead of the usual half-hour, and avoid time-wasting conversations. Reduce the hour you spend with your mother by half. Better still, put her in a nice, cheap old folks' home, where someone else can look after her - that'll save you a whole hour a day. Get rid of that useless budgerigar. See Miss Daria once every two weeks, if at all... Above all, don' squander so much of your precious time on singing, reading, and hobnobbing with your so-called fiends. Incidentally, I'd also advise you to hand a really accurate clock on the wall so you can time your apprentice to the nearest minute."
"How does the system work?"
The man in grey gave another thin-lipped smile. "Don't worry, we'll take care of that. Rest assured, we won't mislay a single second of the time you save. You'll find you haven't any left over."
[Mr. Figaro] forgot the men in grey but not his new resolution, which he believed to be his alone. The determination to save time now so as to be able to begin a new life sometime in the future had embedded itself in his soul like a poisoned arrow."
The odd thing was that, no matter how much time he saved, he never had any to spare; in some mysterious way, it simply vanished.
In their view, even leisure time had to be used to the full, so as to extract the maximum of entertainment and relaxation with the minimum of delay.
Daydreaming [the people] regarded almost as a criminal offence.
What [the people] could endure least of all, however, was silence, for when silence fell they became terrified by the realization of what was happening to their lives. And so, whenever silence threatened to descend, they made a noise. It wasn't a happy sound, of course, like the hubbub in a children's playground, but an angry, ill-tempered din that grew louder and louder every day.
Old buildings were pulled down and replaced with modern ones devoid of all the things that were now thought superfluous. No architect troubled to design houses that suited people who were to live in them, because that would have meant building a whole range of different houses. It was far cheaper and, above all, more timesaving o make them identical.
The lives of the people who inhabited this desert followed a similar pattern: they ran dead straight for as far as the eye could see. Everything in them was carefully planned and programmed, down to the last move and the last moment of time.
People never seemed to notice that, by saving time, they were losing something else. No one cared to admit that life was becoming even poorer, bleaker and more monotonous.
The ones who felt this most keenly were the children, because no one had time for them any more.
But time is life itself, and life resides in the human heart. And the more people saved, the less they had.
They were highly expensive toys... Most noticeable of all, they were so complete, down to the tiniest detail, that they left nothing at all to the imagination.
"I've got eleven books on tape," said a little boy, "so I can listen to them whenever I like. Once upon a time my dad used to tell me stories when he came home from work. That was nice, but he's hardly ever come home these days, and even when he is he's too tired and doesn't feel like it."
"Personally, I'm glad my parentd don't have time for me these days," said Franco, who didn't look glad in the least. "They only quarrel when they're home, and then they take it out on me."
My parents like me a lot. It isn't their fault, not having any time to spare, it's just the way things are. They gave me this transistor to keep me company, and it costs a lot. That proves they're fond of me, doesn't it?
No one spoken, and suddenly the boy who'd been a spoilsport all afternoon began to cry.
Deep down, all of them felt as he did: they felt abandoned.
"Once upon a time, people used to like coming to see Momo because she listened to them and helped them know their own minds... They don't have time for such things, they say, but haven't you noticed something odd? It's strange the things they don't have time for any more."
"Things aren't the way they used to be-times are changing... We all work like fury... Everything's organized - every last move we make..."
"I'm drunk again, Momo, that's the trouble. I often get drunk these days… but that's the only way I can stomach the thought of what we're doing over there. To an honest bricklayer like me, it goes against the grain. Too little cement and too much sand, if you know what that means... Shoddy workmanship from top to bottom, but that's not the worst of it. Those tenements we're putting up aren't places for people to live in, they're --- hen coops. It's enough to make you sick. Still, why should I care as long as I get my wages at the end of the week... It used to give me a kick when we built something worthwhile, but now…"
"Maybe I should start coming over to see you again... Is it a date?"
Momo nodded happily.
But Salvatore never turned up, neither the next day nor the day after that. He never turned up at all.
"Why should I go easy on people? No one goes easy on me."
"Hello," said the doll. "I'm Lola, the Living Doll."...
"Look," said Momo, "we'll never get anywhere if you go on repeating yourself like this."
Before long, Momo was overcome by a sensation so entirely new to her that she took quite a while to recognize it as plain as boredom. Although her inclination was to abandon Lola, the Living Doll,……she couldn't for some reason tear herself away. So there she sat, gazing at the doll, and the doll, with its glassy blue eyes fixed on hers, gazed back. It was as if they had hypnotized each other.
"I'd like some new things," the doll squawked suddenly.
"You see?" said the man in grey. " She's actually telling you herself…..If you don't want to get bored with her, you have to give her things."
"As long as you go on getting more and more things, you'll never grow bored. I know what you're going to say: Sooner or later, Lola will have everything, and then I'll be bored again. Well, there's no fear of that. Here we have the perfect boyfriend for Lola...
So you see, you can never get bored because the game can go on for ever. There's always something left to wish for."
"Lola's perfect in every detail. If there's anything wrong with her, perhaps you'd care to tell me."
Momo stared at the ground and thought hard. Then she said, very quietly, " I don't think anyone could love it - her, I mean."
"All that matters in life," the grey man went on, "is to climb the ladder of success, amount to something, own things. When a person climbs higher than the rest, amounts to more, owns more things, everything else comes automatically: friendship, love, respect, et cetera..."
"Isn't there anyone who loves you?" [Momo] whispered.
"I've never met anyone like [Momo] before, truly I haven't... If there were many more like you around, we'd have nothing to live on. We'd have to close the Timesaving Bank and dissolve into think air."
Now that she had heard the real voice of the man in grey, she could remember everything.
From the sun-baked grass in front of her rose a slender thread of smoke. The trampled butt of a small grey cigar was smouldering away to ashes.
"What is time anyway?"
"SAVE TIME? WHO FOR? NO TIME LEFT? WHERES IT GONE?... IMPORTANT YOUR TIME IS AT STAKE... DON'T YOU HAVE A FUNNY FEELING SOMEBODY YOUR TIME IS STEELING?"
"It's hopeless," he said. "We can't count on the grown-ups, we know that now. I never did trust them anyway. As far as I'm concerned, they can stew in their own juice from now on."
"Today's when [Guido starts his] new job - night watchman, didn't [he] tell [Momo]? [He'd] forgotten the time."
If breezes could be said to have a colour, this one was grey.
"Defendant," the judge broke in sharply. "Do you realise where you are?"
The agent wilted. "Yes," he whispered.
"This is no human court," the judge continued. "You are being tried by your own kind. Lying to us is futile, you know this perfectly well, so why bother to try?"
"It's an occupational habit," the agent stammered.
"Children are [the grey men's] enemies."
Momo began to wonder how any two creatures could walk so slowly but travel so fast.
"This girl is fond of her friends. She loves devoting time to others. What would become of her if there were no one left to share it with her?"
"What's a crisis?" asked Momo.
"It's like this… At certain junctions in the course of existence, unique moments occur when everyone and everything, even the most distant stars, combine to bring about something that could not have happened before and will never happen again. Few people know how to take advantage of these critical moments, unfortunately, and they often pass unnoticed. When someone does recognize them, however, great things happen in the world."
"Why are they all so grey in the face?" Momo asked...
"Because they feed on dead matter," the professor told her.
"They live in people's time, as you know, but time dies - literally dies - once it has been wrested away from its rightful owners. All human beings have their own share of time, but it survives only for as long as it really belongs to them."
"What are they, then?"
"They're nothing. They exist only because people give them the opportunity to do so."
All dwelling in one house are strange brothers three,
as unlike as any three brothers could be,
yet try as you may to tell brother from brother,
you'll find that the trio resemble each other.
The first isn't there, though he'll come beyond doubt.
The second's departed, so he's not about.
The third and the smallest is right on the spot,
And manage without him the others could not.
Yet the third factor with which to be reckoned
Because the first brother turns into the second.
You cannot stand back and observe number three,
For one of the others is all you will see.
So tell me, my child, are the three of them one?
Or are there but two? Or could there be none?
Just name them, and you will at once realize
That each rules a kingdom of infinite size.
They rule it together and are it as well.
In that, they're alike, so where do they dwell?
"Just as people have eyes to see light with and ears to hear sounds with, so they have hearts for the appreciation of time. And all the time they fail to appreciate is as wasted on them as colours of the rainbow are wasted on a blind person or the nightingale's song in a deal one. Some hearts are unappreciative of time, I fear, though they beat like all the rest."
"What [Momo has] just seen and heard wasn't everyone's time," the professor replied, "it was just [her] own. There's a place like the one [she] visited in every living soul, but only those who let me take them there can reach it, nor can it be seen with ordinary eyes."
"So where was [she]?"
"In the depths of [her] own heart."
When even that failed to meet the ever-increasing demand for his services, he did something which he should never have done: he broadcast a story destined for Momo's ears alone.
Guido clung to this thought like a drowning man clutching at a straw. He was rich and famous now, he told himself, and wasn't that what he'd always dreamed of?
[Guido] now employed three super-efficient secretaries to negotiate contracts for him, take down his stories in shorthand, handle his publicity and keep his engagement diary. Somehow, his schedule never left him time to resume the search for Momo.
Once upon a time [Guido's] imagination had soared along and he had blithely followed its lead, but now he was telling lies... This didn't impair his reputation, though. On the contrary, the public acclaimed him for pioneering a new style of humour and many comedians tried to imitate it. Guido was all the rage, not that he derived any pleasure from the fact. He now knew who was responsible for his success. He had gained nothing and lost everything.
Guido the dreamer had, in fact, become Girolamo the hoaxer.
Had no one's future been at stake but [Beppo's] own, he would have starved to death rather than abandon his principles, but there was Momo's ransom to collect, and this was the only way he knew of saving time.
On the few occasions when someone asked [Beppo] what the hurry was, he would pause for a moment, eye the questioner with mingled alarm and sorrow, and put his finger to his lips.
"Children are the raw material of the future. A world dependent on computers and nuclear energy will need an army of experts and technicians to run it. Far from preparing our children for tomorrow's world, we still allow too many of them to squander years of their precious time on childish tomfoolery. It's a blot on our civilization and a crime against future generations."
The children learned these new games but unlearned something in the process: they forgot to be happy, how to take pleasure in little things, and, last but not least, how to dream.
All [the children] could still do was make a noise, but it was an angry, ill-tempered noise, not the happy hullabaloo of former times.
Cemented into the floor beside the windows were a number of tables with such spindly single legs and tiny tops that they looked like toadstools. They were just the right height for grown-ups to eat at standing up -- which was fortunate, since there were no chairs.
Behind every man or woman that stood there, eating in frantic haste, several others waited impatiently for him or her to finish. From time to time, acrimonious remarks were exchanged by those eating and those still waiting to eat. All of them look glum and discontented.
[Momo] called again and waved Guido's letter, but Nino didn't hear.
The electronic cash register was bleeping too loudly.
"I've had masses to eat," Momo told Cassiopeia when they were back at the amphitheatre.
"Far too much, to tell the truth, but somehow I still feel empty inside."
"Anyway, [Momo] couldn't have told Nino about the flowers and the music - there wasn't time, and [she doesn't] think he'd have understood.
Guido groaned aloud and clutched his head. Producing a small silver pillbox from his pocket, he took out a capsule and gulped it down.
"You see how far gone I am?" [Guido] patted Momo's arm and gave a wry little laugh. "I couldn't go back now, even if I wanted to - beyond redemption. 'Guido's still Guido!' - remember? Well, Guido isn't Guido anymore. Believe me, Momo, there's nothing more dangerous in life than dreams that come true, at least when they come true like mine. I've nothing left to dream about, and not even you could teach me to dream again. I'm fed up to the teeth with everything and everyone."
"But poverty without dreams? No, Momo, that would be sheer hell. I'd sooner stay where I am. That's another kind of hell, but at least it's a comfortable one."
There were even moments when she wished she had never heard the music or seen the flowers. And yet, had she been offered a choice, nothing in the world would have induced her to part with her memories of them, not even the prospect of death. Yes, death, for she now discovered that there are treasures capable of destroying those who have no one to share them with.
"Where are you off to?" [Momo] asked.
"To our play class," Franco told her. "That's where they teach us how to play."
Momo looked puzzled. "Play what?"
"Today we're playing data retrieval It's a very useful game, but you have to concentrate like mad.
"Is it fun?" Momo asked, looking rather doubtful.
"That's not the point," Maria replied uneasily. "Anyway, you shouldn't talk like that."
"The point is it's useful for the future."
"What about the people [time] belongs to? What will happen to them?"
"People? People have been obsolete for years, They've made the world a place where there's no room left for their own kind."
"Normally time flows into you. The more time you have inside you, the older you get, but in Never Lane time flows out of you."
"There's a lot more to human beings than the time they carry around inside them, but it's different with the men in grey. Stolen time is all they consist of, and that disappears in a flash when they're exposed to temporal suction. It escapes like air from a burst balloon, the only difference being that a balloon's skin survives. In their case, there's nothing left at all."
"One day, you don't feel like doing anything. Nothing interests you, everything bores you. Feel more and more empty inside, more and more dissatisfied with yourself and the world in general. Then even that feeling wears off, and you don't feel anything anymore. You become completely indifferent to what goes on around you... You forget how to laugh and cry - you're cold inside and incapable of loving anything or anyone... There's no going back... The disease has a name. It's called deadly tedium."
The last of the men in grey nodded slowly. "I'm glad... it's all... over..."
Then he vanished, too.
Cassiopeia limped off and picked herself a nice, dark, quiet corner. She tucked her head and legs in, and very slowly, in letters visible only to those have read this story, her shell spelled out two words: THE END
"[The 'mysterious acquaintance'] described all these events as if they'd already happened. [He] might just as well described them as if they still lay in the future. To [him], there's very little difference."