An orphaned girl blessed with an extraordinary gift for listening stands up to ominous time thieves in Momo, a fantasy novel by the late German writer Michael Ende, best known as the author of The Neverending Story. First published in 1973 in Germany (predating The Neverending Story by six years), Momo was available in the U.S. for a brief time in the mid-1980s, when Puffin released a translation by J. Maxwell Brownjohn. This week, McSweeney’s McMullens brings the novel back into print in this country for the first time in 25 years with a 40th-anniversary edition featuring a new translation by Lucas Zwirner and illustrations by Marcel Dzama.
The new edition of Momo is the brainchild of Zwirner, now 22 and a recent graduate of Yale, who first encountered the novel as a child, when his father read it to him in German. “My father was born in Cologne, and he read it to me in part to help my German but also because he had loved the novel as a child,” Zwirner explained. “Then when I was a bit older, I read it and reread it on my own.” He said he didn’t think about the novel for years, until his freshman year in college. “I was trying to figure out how I should spend my summer, and I noticed a random copy of a German edition of Momo that happened to be lying around.”
That auspiciously placed copy inspired Zwirner’s summer plan. Realizing that Momo had long been out of print in the U.S., and eager to sharpen his German skills, the 18-year-old decided to embark on a new translation of the novel. “It was a somewhat daunting challenge, but I wrote it quite quickly,” he said. “I had limited time, since I knew I’d have little time or energy for it when school started again. I translated eight or 10 pages a day, and spent six or seven hours each day hunched over my computer. One thing I feel bad about is that I had difficulty propping open the German copy of the novel I was working with, and I tore it apart so that I could isolate the pages. I still feel terrible about that!”
By summer’s end, Zwirner had completed a draft, and he contacted Dzama, an artist associated with David Zwirner Gallery in New York, which is owned by the translator’s father. “I first met Marcel as a child at gallery openings and events and we became friends, and I showed him the book and we began talking about illustrations for it,” Zwirner said. “I then peddled it around to publishers, but there were issues about how to go about getting translation rights. The project didn’t unfold as translations usually do, with a publisher first obtaining rights and then finding a translator, so it was more complicated.”
Things fell into place when Zwirner showed the book project to Brian McMullen, editorial and art director of McSweeney’s McMullens, the children’s imprint that McSweeney’s launched in 2011. “I read the manuscript and knew immediately that I wanted us to do it,” said McMullen. “I couldn’t believe this book had been out of print in the U.S. for more than a quarter-century. Our associate publisher, Adam Krefman, managed to clear the rights, and that was that.”
McMullen notes that Momo has appeal on several levels. “For starters, the villains are great – the Bernie Madoffs of time theft,” he said. “They come to the adults of Momo’s town with the dazzling promise of a golden future. Bank your extra time with us, they say, and generous interest will accrue. Then, when you’re old, you’ll have enough time in the bank to do everything you always wanted to do.” The only people who can see what’s really happening, he said, are the children. “And the only child with the wits and the chutzpah to fight the villains is Momo. She is a unique, beautiful hero. And there’s a clarity in Ende’s prose and an unabashed big-ness to the ideas that is naturally attractive to young readers. There’s wit and intelligence on every page. What reader doesn't love a book like that?”
Zwirner, who is currently working on some other translations and hopes to turn his focus to writing novels, is open to the idea of translating additional children’s books. “If a great project presents itself and I feel it is something, like Momo, that should be made available, I’d be interested,” he said. “I feel very strongly that this is a book that children everywhere should be reading. That, and the need for a good new translation, made it just the right time to do this book. It’s very exciting to see it finished.”
Momo: 40th Anniversary Edition by Michael Ende, trans. by Lucas Zwirner, illus. by Marcel Dzama. McSweeney’s McMullens, $22 Aug. ISBN 978-1-938073-14-4