The Neverending Story is Michael Ende’s best-known book, but Momo — published six years earlier — is the all-ages fantasy novel that first won him wide acclaim. After the sweet-talking gray men come to town, life becomes terminally efficient. Can Momo, a young orphan girl blessed with the gift of listening, vanquish the ashen-faced time thieves before joy vanishes forever?
Although Momo is a beloved modern classic in Ende’s native Germany, where the author enjoys a Vonnegut-esque level of popularity, the book has been out of print in the United States since the mid-1980s. McSweeney’s McMullens has just released a 40th anniversary edition, with new drawings by Marcel Dzama and a new translation from the German by Lucas Zwirner. McSweeney’s intern Amanda Arnold emailed with Zwirner in July about the process of bringing Momo back to life for a new generation of American readers.
Amanda Arnold: How were you introduced to Momo?
Lucas Zwirner: My father first read Momo to me as a little boy. The book was part of his larger effort to make sure I really learned to pronounce German early on. That effort included other books by Michael Ende; Krabat by Otfried Preussler; and many nights spent listening to German cassettes while I fell asleep. When I was a little older I read Momo on my own, and I kept rereading it throughout my childhood.
AA: You decided to dedicate a huge amount of time to translating this story from German to English. What triggered your desire to do this?
LZ: The translator Peter Cole once told me that almost all of a translator’s early work grows out of disappointment with existing translations, and that’s pretty much what happened to me. The book had been out of print in the United States for a long time, so there was room for a new English translation. I didn’t have any hope of getting it published, I just knew I wanted to do it. So I spent a summer working on a first draft of a new version. I sent it to McSweeney’s, and Brian McMullen, the director of the McSweeney’s children’s imprint, picked it up.
AA: American readers may not initially recognize Michael Ende’s name, but many would recognize him through his most popular novel, The Neverending Story. Do the stories have anything in common? What do you think fans of The Neverending Story will think of Momo?
LZ: Both books revolve around the triumph of imaginative power in worlds that have little time for the imagination. I think fans of The Neverending Story will recognize that in Momo as well. They’ll recognize the call for imaginative thinking in their everyday lives. I also think they’ll recognize Ende’s style of storytelling. He knows exactly when to bide his time, delay, build tension, repeat certain scenes, and return to past locations in order to generate pathos and narrative drive. The way the gray men infiltrate Momo’s world of stories is reminiscent of the way Nothing infects Fantastica, the world of fantasy and dreams in The Neverending Story. Like the gray men, Nothing is a sickness—something like a disease born of lies and ambition. That sounds very similar to the way the character Beppo puts the problem of the gray men in Momo.
AA: The story contains some darker episodes—such as when the evil gray men sacrifice one another over the Hour Blossoms. What is the value of such scenes, and what unique power might this book hold for American readers in 2013?
LZ: Those moments make the more ecstatic scenes—like the final scene, where Momo flies up on the billowing cloud of blossoms—much more powerful. Darker moments with the gray men might be a little bit scary or confusing for children (not overwhelmingly so, I hope), but that confusion finds resolution in the story, and the resolution has more emotional power because of those scenes. The chase and the discussion in the boardroom where the gray men plan to trick Momo by manipulating her friends are both good examples. The book’s power today has to do with the interplay between these two registers: the scary or strange scenes and the positive, uplifting ones. Instead of shying away from darker aspects of his world and ours, Ende engages them for us, and by doing that he also presents some ways we might overcome them.
The gray men are coming to steal your time.
Illustration by Marcel Dzama.
AA: Were there parts of the story that were particularly difficult to translate?
LZ: I think the story really gets going after Part One. The first part is important because it sets the stage and establishes the themes of listening and storytelling, but it has less momentum. I found it hard to stick to the way I was hearing Ende’s voice in the German because of how I felt the English prose was moving in Part One (sluggishly). In the end, I made adjustments and I continued to remind myself that it was Ende’s book, and that I had no business trying to manipulate the tempo of that first part. There are also more lyrical moments—when Master Hora takes Momo to see the Hour Blossoms—which required more sensitivity and a few more rounds of tweaking.
AA: A lot of the ways of life that Ende criticizes, such as consumerism, still exist today. He also urges society to not be so focused on “saving time.” What do you think Ende would think of society today? Could Momo’s lessons maybe even be more relevant today than they were when the book was originally published?
LZ: In many ways, the book’s lessons do seem more relevant than ever. The consumerism that Ende criticizes has gotten faster, more automated, and is more pervasive than it was forty years ago. I think he would have many of the same objections he had then. A cultural obsession with efficiency and profit can distract from the less quantifiable pleasures of caring for people. But I don’t think Ende would be bitter today, or overly irascible. He was always more interested in imagining new possibilities, in trying to create imaginative alternatives to the negative trends he saw around him. And he was very successful.
AA: What lessons do you expect children to take away from Momo?
LZ: Hopefully they’ll like the book and want to reread it, something I often did as a boy and still do with many books. Then maybe they’ll begin to think about storytelling and what it might feel like to come up with stories for yourself, or to be part of a storytelling process with other people. Hopefully the book will make children want to emulate some of the games the characters play, and get them excited about their imaginative adventures, the same way any good piece of fiction gets its audience to begin imagining and then living in the world it presents.
AA: This story touches on a lot of complex themes, such as—like you touched on—mankind’s obsession with saving time, and consequential lack of enjoyment in everyday tasks. While young children may not pick up on ideas like this, most older readers would. What do you think adults can learn from Momo?
LZ: In my ideal scenario, a parent is reading the book out loud to his or her child, and both people are letting themselves learn from it in different ways. It’s not a new idea that rushing through tasks makes it hard to enjoy them—and it’s also true that many tasks are just not enjoyable, which is why we rush through them—but hopefully the book will prompt adult readers to think more carefully about the things they want to do slowly and carefully, the things they enjoy and want to lose themselves in. Like reading.
AA: Do you think there’s a certain type of person who may not pick up Momo in a bookstore, but would greatly benefit from its lessons?
LZ: That’s difficult. I want to say yes, but you have to be open to Ende’s vision in order to learn from Momo. I worry that the people for whom Momo would in theory be very important are also the people who might not be able to get much out of it. But maybe there’s a certain kind of young person—someone who felt or learned these lessons as a smaller child but may have drifted away into other things. Maybe she senses that she’s lost something. For that person this book could act like a reminder, a small voice, something she reads in private because she’s embarrassed to be reading a children’s book, but something she reads nonetheless. For the reader I’m imagining, the benefits could be enormous—not in any practical or applicable way, but personally.
AA: Your friend Marcel Dzama did the illustrations for the book. Did you give him a lot of direction with the art, so that the illustrations would match up with your visions of the characters, or did you give Marcel full freedom?
LZ: Marcel was amazing. I contacted him the summer I finished the translation and he agreed to read it. He liked it and said he would do drawings for it. Once he agreed, I got really excited about the project because it seemed like it might actually happen. Then (surprise, surprise) it took me almost three years to find a publisher. After a number of rejections, Marcel and I got McSweeney’s McMullens involved and despite the long delay, Marcel still agreed to do the drawings. Ende originally did drawings for the book, images that were built into the text. So there were a few drawings—the final drawing of the turtle and the drawing of the children with the posters—that Marcel had to put in because of how Ende wrote the book. But other than that, he had complete freedom. He drew whatever he found interesting or moving. And he did it in his own style, which is exactly what I was hoping for. He has given us a part of his own imaginative process in those images—what he saw when he read the book—and the results are captivating.
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Amanda Arnold is a summer intern at McSweeney’s. She studies journalism, French, and food anthropology at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.