Michael Ende is best known for his novel “The Never Ending Story”  however, the German author was a prolific writer of fantasy and children’s fiction, selling more than 35 million copies of his works in his lifetime and having them adapted into films, plays, operas and audio-books .
His fantasy novel Momo , also known as The Grey Gentleman explores themes of modernism and materialism and the power of a young girl to simply give people a most valuable asset, her attention and time.
Set on the outskirts of an unknown Mediterranean city, perhaps in Italy, the story centres around a neighbourhood of simple folk and an orphan, Momo.
Living in the ruins of an amphitheatre, Momo does not know how to read or write, nor does she know her own age. She however has a unique gift for truly listening to people. Momo is considered to be somewhat of an advisor to all the people of the neighbourhood for helping them solve their petty problems by simply listening.
Momo does not say much but her gentle ability to listen to people helps them untangle their problems themselves. Momo’s closest friends are Beppo, the street sweeper and Guido, a tour guide.
Into the tranquil world of this community come the Men in Grey, bald men with greyish skin and grey suits who represent the Time Savings Bank. These men indoctrinate the people of this town to the value of ‘saving time’ which requires depositing time in accounts in order to gain interest on it.
Gradually, activities perceived to be time wasting such as socialising, art creation, imaginative playing or even sleeping begin to be replaced by hectic work and stress.
Momo remains immune to the powers of the Men in Grey. As her friends no longer come to her for counsel, she perceives the irony that the more time people save, the less time they have.
Momo is assisted by curious creature called Cassiopeia, a tortoise who communicates with words illuminated on her shell and who has the gift of future-sightedness. Cassiopeia introduces her to the Administrator of Time, Professor Secundus Minutus Hora, who grants her one “hour lily”, freezing time for one hour, long enough for Momo to infiltrate the lair of the Men in Grey.
Momo discovers the the Men in Grey are not real humans but are in fact parasites living off the time deposited in their bank by people. The cigars they smoke are made from dried “hour lilies” deposited in the bank for saving and without these cigars, the Men in Grey perish.
It is Momo’s challenge to deprive the Men in Grey of their cigars while simultaneously releasing the trapped “hour lilies” kept in the bank for safe keeping, and return them to the people who have lost them.
Written at the end of modernsim and at the cusp of post-modernism and the flowering of neo-spiritualism, Ende like the Romantics before him, lamented the gradual erasure of the mystical, spiritual or esoteric from human life in favour of utilitarianism, materialism and economic rationalism.
To Michael Ende, children such as Momo are unique symbols of resistance to adult preoccupations such as materialism, work, stress and time saving.
His story is an essay to the magic of friendship, the importance of time, the power of stories, the significance of compassion and the value of the small but pleasant things that make life more worth living.
Our unlikely hero is Momo, whose invincibility lies in the fact that her childish imagination can see through the Men in Grey, and her love for her friends leads her to courageously challenge the establishment which would rob them of their most precious asset -time.