There once was a strange, orphaned girl named Momo who lived in an abandoned theater on the edge of a small village. She was highly revered by the town's inhabitants: she was an expert mediator and could quell any argument without saying a single word. Momo wasn't particularly extraordinary - no super-powers, masterful skills, or adventuresome past - but she was an exceptional listener. Her eager ears allowed people the freedom to talk through their conflicts without any judgments. She'd help adults with their concerns and use her skills to benefit children her age as well: her presence alone at a game of make-believe permitted every child to add to their story with whatever flights of fancy they dreamt up. No one was wrong as long as Momo was listening and she listened so well in part because people had time to regale her. Taking time for conversation directly resulted in a harmonious community, but unfortunately, with the appearance of the mysterious Grey Men, all of this would change.
The Grey Men function with a terribly convincing agenda that countless seconds of a person's life are wasted on useless things like sleep, chitchat, idleness and general non-essential pleasantries. It is a very swaying argument: if someone were to calculate how much time a person spends doing something in a single year, or even in a person's lifetime, it's hard to stand firm against those figures. A 30-minute commute to work turns into an hour a day, 365 hours a year, or 15 entire days spent each year on one's commute alone. The Grey Men approach everyone in Momo's village to crunch their numbers, ultimately suggesting that these time-wasters open a "time savings account" to hold onto any wasted seconds. Stunned by The Grey Men's schemes, the townspeople fall for their tricks and attempt to curb their wasted spending with hopes they'll get that time back later.
Unfortunately, time cannot really be traded, and a second saved is a second wasted if it's not put to some use. Momo watches in dismay as her friends lose their patience for stories and friendships, all at the hands of The Grey Men and their time-saving ploy. Momo must find a way to reawaken her town and show its inhabitants how to enjoy each minute of the day, regardless of their productivity.
Momo does get surprisingly conceptual and one could almost be consumed by the novel's allegorical themes and declare that much of its action takes place entirely within its characters' minds. Perhaps The Grey Men are a skewed personification of what it's like to get older or a poisoned manifestation of adult responsibility. And perhaps Master Secundis Minutius Hora and his temple of time are just figments of Momo's imagination. Hora teaches Momo that "the present only exists because the future turns into the past," and shows her the Time Blossoms "in [her] own heart" also "exist in every single person [and] can't be seen through ordinary eyes." When Momo disappears into Master Hora's time rift, her friend attempts to report her as missing. Naturally, the police are skeptical: "In other words", a policeman confirms, "there was once a highly unusual little girl whose existence no one can prove and who was kidnapped by a group of ghost-like men whose existence is similarly dubious... but even all of that isn't definite because you don't know for sure. Any now the police should undertake a search?"
Momo is a joyful read that strikes that rare balance between indulgence and didacticism. Beyond the fanciful prose, there are many philosophies with which to grapple about using one's imagination, being alone, and appreciating every second of the day. Parents could read Momo and re-evaluate all the distractions in their busy, adult lives, while children could read the novel and find a cautionary tale about how to find adventure and satisfaction from within. But none of these readings stand out as an overarching, heavy-handed theme, and instead, Ende asks his readers to take the time to discover what Momo means to them.
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