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Literature / Momo

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Lots of things take time, and time was Momo's only form of wealth.

Momo is a German fantasy novel written by Michael Ende in 1973. An English translation has been published in 1974 as The Grey Gentlemen, and again in 1984 as Momo.

Momo takes place in an unnamed Italian town which is home to the eponymous homeless girl, who is known to be wise and has an almost supernatural ability to listen and help people come to terms with their problems. At the beginning of the book she leads a happy life, living in an old amphitheater on the outskirts of the city, surrounded by a community of friends who bring her food and share their problems with her. One day strange men with pale skin, grey suits, and grey hats appear in town and offer people to take their spare time into an account and pay it back with interest at a later time. More and more people agree to the offer and give away more and more of their spare time, and gradually give up any activities that are not considered completely necessary and eventually lose all their emotions. When the grey men approach Momo, one inadvertently reveals that that they are trying to drain the people's time away for their own uses. And unlike everyone else in the city, Momo can remember them after they have left.


One night, a tortoise named Cassiopeia appears and leads her to the house of Master Hora, who guards the stores of time against the grey men, but needs Momo to help him. Meanwhile, the gray men are bringing all their powers against her, since they know that she is the only one who can stop them.

A film was made in German in 1986. Michael Ende involved himself in the production of the film, after having been disappointed in the adaptation of The Neverending Story.

On 2001, an animated adaption was made in Italy.

Not to be confused with Momo, the English translation of La Vie Devant Soi by Romain Gary, or the infamous Momo. Ducks or winged lemurs also have nothing to do with this story.


This book provides examples of:

  • Admiring the Abomination: The children play a make-believe game where they are explorers in the South Seas investigating a phenomenon that's threatening shipping. It turns out to be an enormous prehistoric creature, and the head scientist is enraptured by what a marvelous specimen it is; when he's reminded that they're there to destroy it, he says sadly that it's a shame they can't just examine it and leave it be.
  • An Aesop: The book's message is that we need to make time for each other, and all the things we love in our lives. If we don't, we'll be just as lifeless as the victims of the Grey Men.
  • The Air Not There: During the timestop, Momo can still move around, as can the Grey Men and Cassiopeia. Justified because all of them carry a bit of their own time with them — Momo has the time flower, the Grey Men have their cigars, and Cassiopeia is explicitly stated to have her own time within her.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: "Doesn't anybody love you?" causes Agent BLW/553/c to crack.
  • Bad Future: While Momo sleeps, the Grey Men change the world into a place where nobody has time, with rampant construction and fast food diners, where children's games rely on computers instead of imagination, and where the public only admires idols which could be easily destroyed.
  • Bald of Evil: The Grey Men are all completely bald.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Gigi's biggest dream is to become famous (in the book by telling stories, in the movie by becoming a singer). When his dream comes true, he eventually feels lonely and empty and even says "Momo, the most dangerous things in life are idle wishes that come true."
  • Being Evil Sucks: When Momo listens to one of the Men in Grey and elicits a confession of their scheme, he also finds himself admitting that it's a wearisome business that consumes most of the time they've stolen, and they wouldn't continue it except that it's the only way they know to survive. When Momo foils the scheme and returns the stolen time to its rightful owners, the last of the Men in Grey to wink out of existence does so with the words, "I'm glad it's all over."
  • Binomium ridiculus: When the children are playing at being a scientific expedition in the South Seas, they invent new scientific names for the creatures they discover, including the Blancmangius viscosus, the Jellybeania multicolorata, the Chocolatus indigestibilis, and the Teetotum elasticum.
  • Blame Game: In one example of the power of Momo's listening, two of her friends get in a prank war and go to her to settle it. One of them accuses the other of starting it, the other responds with an earlier offense by the first, and they go back and forward several times until they reach a prank that both agree was the start of the whole thing. They then admit that it was a silly thing to be still fighting over, and make up.
  • Chatty Hairdresser: Herr Fusi / Mr Figaro, the barber, starts out as one, until the Grey Men get their claws into him and he becomes obsessed with dealing with each customer as quickly and efficiently as possible.
  • Deal with the Devil: When Beppo Roadsweeper ends up in a Bedlam House, the Grey Men approach him with two deals. The first one is that they will get him released if he stops trying to tell everyone about them. The second is that they will release Momo from their custody if he manages to save up a hundred thousand hours (about 11.5 years) - they don't have any means to hold up their end of the second deal, but Beppo, not knowing this, accepts both deals.
  • Death's Hourglass: Played with. Momo visits the house of Master Hora, whose task is to see that every human gets their allotted span of time — which may or may not be a euphemism for him being an avatar of Death — and finds it full of clocks, each different and each displaying a different time. She asks if each clock represents an individual human, and he says no, he just has a hobby of collecting clocks.
  • Does Not Like Shoes: Momo refuses to wear shoes unless it's winter.
  • Don't Fear The Reaper: Momo asks Master Hora whether he's Death; he doesn't answer, but says death is nothing to be scared of.
  • Dub Name Change: Several of Momo's friends have different names in the English translation, mostly due to different cultural ideas about which names sound male or female. Girolamo has the nickname "Guido" instead of "Gigi", Nicola the bricklayer becomes Salvatore, and Herr Fusi the barber becomes Mr Figaro.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Beppo Roadsweeper. Even when a policeman asks him if Roadsweeper is his surname or his job, he replies "Both".
  • Evil Is Deathly Cold: The arrival of one of the Grey Men is always accompanied by any humans present thinking that it's got chilly all of a sudden. The effect is multiplied when more than one is present. This is also how they keep the stolen time flowers in their HQ from going back to their owners, keeping them frozen in a great vault.
  • Explain, Explain... Oh, Crap!: Because Hora falls asleep as part of his plan to save humanity’s stolen time, the Grey Men manage to reach his world, hoping to find the source of time. But with Hora asleep, the time itself freezes, which means that not only they can’t steal it, but that their cigars made by stolen time (which is also what keep them alive) will run out eventually. As they realize it, they run back to the Time Bank to survive.
  • Face Death with Dignity: The Grey Men are an aversion, fighting each other over the last remaining cigars — until the very end, when the final words of the last one are "It's good that it's all over."
  • Fat and Skinny: Nino and Liliana, the couple who run the inn; Nino is skinny and Liliana is plump. Nino tends to be the more bad-tempered and impulsive one, while Liliana tends to be more easy-going and wiser.
  • The Film of the Book:
    • From 1986, with John Huston as Master Hora.
    • An Italian animated movie in 2001.
  • Framing Device: The story of Momo was supposedly told to the author by a stranger on a train.
  • Good Smoking, Evil Smoking: In this case, definitely evil — the Grey Men are always seen smoking small, grey cigars made of stolen time.
  • Good with Numbers: It is seemingly one of The Grey Men's Required Secondary Powers to be able to make massive multiplication and substraction equations in a few seconds for the purpose of making people feel like they are wasting their time.
  • Heart Is an Awesome Power: Being able to listen to people doesn't sound special, and the narrator notes it outright. But Momo's willingness to listen to anyone, about anything, really does help people work through their worries, fears, and quarrels. Her listening skill also helps her against the Grey Men, since she listens to the depth of her interlocutor's being — and the Grey Men are, ultimately, nothingness.
  • The Heartless: The Grey Men only exist by stealing existence from humans.
  • Hope Bringer: Momo, even before the paranormal events start. Her willingness to simply listen to anyone does a lot to allay people's fears and worries.
  • Humanoid Abomination: The Grey Men.
  • Intangible Theft: The Grey Men trick people into giving them their spare time, and without any time left for leisure, they lose all emotion and purpose in life.
  • Last of His Kind: When the children are playing at being a scientific expedition, they discover an enormous creature that they believe to be the last living specimen of its species.
  • Layman's Terms: When the children are playing at being a scientific expedition in the South Seas, the first mate of the expedition ship at one point asks the chief scientist to translate what he just said in terms that "simple sea-faring folk" can understand.
  • Ludicrous Precision: The Grey Men, when it comes to time. In one scene, a Grey Man gives his age to the exact second.
  • Magical Guide: Cassiopeia to Momo. She's a friend/familiar of the protagonist's Mentor and uses a thematically-appropriate power to guide her safely through danger. She also cheers Momo up in her own snarky way.
  • Mathematician's Answer: Momo, when asked about her age: "As far as I can remember... I've always been around."
  • Meaningful Name: Master Secundus Minutius Hora.
  • Mind Screw: The entire thing!
  • Move in the Frozen Time: During the timestop in the finale, a few beings can still move around: Cassiopeia the tortoise, as part of her time-based powers; the Grey Men, who are implied to be made of (corrupted) time, and Momo, who has been given a time flower.
  • Narrator All Along: The stranger from the framing device is implied at the end to be one of the characters.
  • New Technology is Evil: There are certain undertones of it, e.g. the toys that are made for modern kids and the marketing schemes to go with them. And all the "timesaving" technology, though in the end it is not the technology but the philosophy of what is more or less important in life that is truly evil.
  • One-Word Title: As a first name of Protagonist Title.
  • Orphanage of Fear: Before Momo took up living in the Amphitheater, she lived in an orphanage that had bars on the windows and daily beatings. She's horrified at the idea of being sent to another orphanage.
  • Parental Abandonment: Momo doesn't know where her parents are, and before the book started she had escaped from an orphanage of some kind. Her parents are never mentioned again after the first chapter. Milder for the other children, whose parents are around, but have no time for their kids since the Grey Men stole it from them.
  • Perception Filter: The Grey Men can do their work effectively because they are visible but inconspicuous. They can reconnoiter without being noticed, or persuade people into saving time without being remembered.
  • Placebo Eureka Moment: Momo's listening power has this effect on others.
  • Same Story, Different Names: In-universe, Gigi falls into this after he becomes a famous storyteller. He has to keep up such a prolific output that he runs out of inspiration and falls back on retelling old stories with names and minor details changed. Nobody seems to notice, and if anything the number of reviewers hailing him as an original talent increases.
  • Senseless Sacrifice: The Grey Men convince people that the time they give away is being invested in a bank, and that they will earn interest on it. Instead, they consume it through their cigars. Meanwhile, the people let their lives grow greyer and greyer...
  • Short Title: Long, Elaborate Subtitle: The original German subtitle translates to "The strange story of the time-thieves and of the child who returned the stolen time to the people/humans."note 
  • Take That!: Gigi tells some American ladies the story of the tyrant Marxentius Communus who wanted to reconstruct the world to make it better. So he forced the world population to build a globe which would depict Earth 1:1. Of course, this meant that people eventually had to move to the globe, and at the end, after a lot of hard work, nothing had changed at all. After which Marxentius averted his face and left, never to be seen again.
  • Talking through Technique: The tortoise Cassiopeia communicates with Momo by words that appear on the back of her shell.
  • Time Abyss: Master Hora is implied to be this — then again, how couldn't he be, seeing as he's the keeper of time for all humans? Twice in the book he is described as being inexpressibly old, not the way a human is old but the way a mountain is old.
  • Time Dilation: The brightly lit area on the way to Master Hora's house, where you move faster the more slowly you go and vice versa. The last road to his house is a zone of completely reversed time.
  • Time Master: Master Hora is an extreme example: he is the one who controls and distributes time in the Universe, and stops just short of being an Anthropomorphic Personification.
  • Time Stands Still: During the book's finale.
  • True Craftsman:
    • Momo's friend the bricklayer. When the Grey Men have taken over, he and his co-workers have to work faster, building a new floor in a week, but he admits it's crappy work which may last a few years at best, is frustrated and often gets drunk.
  • The Watcher: Master Hora.
  • What Kind of Lame Power Is Heart, Anyway?:
    • Cassiopeia can see into the future, but just 30 minutes, and she cannot change how things are going to turn out.
    • At first glance, Momo herself, with her listening power, might qualify. Until that scene with Gray Man BLW/553/c, where she gets him to betray himself. The earlier scene of her inviting the builder and the bar/restaurant owner can also count; all she does is listen and yet they make up. The book makes a point that she often listens to people pouring their heart out and that helps them realize important truths: like after such a session, a person who thinks they are a dime a dozen will feel like they are irreplaceable and one in a million, and so on.
  • Wise Beyond Their Years: Momo.
  • A Year and a Day: Momo spends this period of time in Master Hora's house learning what time is.
  • You Are Number 6: The grey men don't have names, just a code in the form of a string of letters and numbers.