Lively's Moon Tiger, World War Two, and Post-Colonial Literature -- History Once-Removed

Adrienne T. Chisolm '93, English 34 (1991)

Compared to Wole Soyinka's Aké: The Years of Childhood , Sara Suleri's Meatless Days and Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia , Moon Tiger most directly contemplates the Second World War. The setting is physically closest; most of the plot takes place amidst the fighting in Egypt between 1940 and 1942, and that fighting is the very reason that English journalist Claudia Hampton, the narrator, lives there. History fascinates Claudia; not only does she write books about it, but she also theorizes: it is kaleidoscopic ("there is no sequence, everything happens at once" [2]), it includes "fact and fiction, myth and evidence, images and documents" (1). According to her, "truth" is an empty word in the field of history. By juxtaposing different characters' versions of a given scene, Lively demonstrates the phenomenon that Claudia herself recognizes: not the mere presentation, but the selective representation of an event constitutes history:

Argument, of course, is the whole point of history. Disagreement; my word against yours; this evidence against that. If there were such a thing as absolute truth the debate would lose its lustre. (14)

Claudia reflects also on the relation of people to the land; in the end, we are "[g]one, passed through and away," but "[t]ampering with the physical world [before we leave] is what we do extremely well" (13). As Claudia's story unfolds, it becomes clear that a purely historical mind would have trouble making sense of her experiences in Egypt, and that perhaps many of her unorthodox theories on history evolved after WWII; for when she tries to apply her history-loving mind to the war in which she sits, one can see -- not only from things she says, but also from those things she does not -- that Claudia has some trouble.

Although Claudia never does, certainly one might add Hitler to the list of historical characters who most fascinate her -- single personalities without whom history probably would have unfolded considerably differently. But her lists are conspicuously devoid of the German leader; Claudia's lover, Tom, does mention the name once, but in a peculiarly self-absorbed manner when he recognizes -- intentionally oversimplistically -- the strangeness of fate (i.e., of history): "�I owe Hitler for you. What a thought'" (76). Indeed, Claudia presents the entire war on a similarly personal level. This personalization of world events is not completely inconsistent with Claudia's approach towards history in general, before and after her war experiences; she strongly believes in the importance of working oneself into history in order to exist with meaning ("extravagance: my history and the world's. . . . unless I am a part of everything I am nothing" [207]). But WWII is different, for this time history has worked itself into her, for better and for worse, much like the war has entered Egypt.

Whereas Claudia presumably can look at other past events (Hernando Cortez and the Aztecs, for example) with imagination and involvement so that she feels she is almost a part of them, the closeness of the war in Egypt somehow hinders Claudia from seeing it as a completely real event while it happens, or from remembering it in agreement with how other historians record it later. Up close, soldiers realize that the Front is an "elusive shifting goal: a concept rather than a place" (92); some things become intensely clear -- as Tom describes it, "When you're flung from one state of mind to another with such speed the physical world takes on an extraordinary clarity. I have spent whole minutes gazing at the structure of a rock or the behavior of an insect" (101-02) -- but some of what seems clear turns out to be hallucination. And being so close to the war, at least according to Tom, uncovers the truth that "[w]ars have little to do with justice" (102).

Although Claudia does not participate in actual battle, her nearness to the war and her deep involvement through Tom similarly affect the way she views it in relation to herself. The war, she realises, has become something quite different. It is no longer prowling on the perimeter, like some large unpredictable animal that she is safely watching from afar, whose doings are of scientific interest. It has come right up close and is howling at her bedroom door. . . . She is afraid, not for herself but with that indistinct cosmic fear of long ago. (117)

As Claudia feels the war "at her bedroom door," aspects of it become, as they have for Tom, simultaneously clear and distorted.

[S]he sees now that the figures on the tank are dragging from it what has been a man, a reddened, blackened thing with smashed head and a shining splintered white bone for an arm. There is a reek of burning and decay (85)

Encountering grotesque scene after scene has led her to the point that "to stand here in this place [Cairo] at this time talking to someone about botany" (101) feels unsettling to her. But the periodic semblance of normality unsettles Claudia even more, as when she realizes the surrealistic quality of the fact that

[w]omen whose husbands had bought it during the last push were seen a few weeks later being terribly plucky beside the swimming-pool at Gezira Sporting Club. I remember laughing immoderately. Dancing. Drinking. (90)

The situation is so strange and unreal that "there are moments . . . when she feels that she is untethered, no longer hitched to past or future or to a known universe but adrift in the cosmos" (90).

Recalling the war later on, Claudia is struck that her disturbing memories upset her much less than the facts she has heard: "I have seen war. . . . And yet what I know of war seems most vivid in the head; when I lie awake at night and shudder it is not experience but knowledge that churns in the mind" (66). Reading histories of the events only reinforces the sense of otherworldliness that Claudia's closeness to the war has given her.

The files of newspaper libraries are stuffed with these baby-faces. . . . In pursuit of truth and facts, in the exercise of my craft, I have looked at them and thought of the slipperiness of whatever fact or truth it is that makes these faces change with the eyes that view them. It was not boys I saw in 1941.

Nor the grey of old newsprint. In the mind's eye is the blazing technicolor of a hot country. . . . (104)

Lack of distance, physical and emotional, puts Claudia in a position where statistics and the international politics of the war ironically take on little or no importance; for although the setting of her story most definitely is the war, the subject most definitely is not, at least on the surface, the issues over which the countries are fighting.

It is important to remember that Moon Tiger would be described more accurately not as a post-colonial work but as a post-imperial one; Claudia Hampton is an Englishwoman in Egypt, there only while the Allies attempt to protect their own interests in the Suez Canal against Italy and Germany. Although England officially granted Egypt independence in 1922, that independence required reaffirmation by a treaty in 1932 and still permitted the stationing of British troops. According to Claudia, the Egyptians she encounters either watch the desert war "with detachment" or do not watch it at all. "When Egyptians speak of the war," she explains, "they mean the Israeli war, not ours -- which wasn't after all anything to do with them anyway" (116). Movie theaters show English and American films, garden parties are thrown to aid English troops, afternoon teas are given and polo fields are set up (109); after the decisive Battle of El Alamein in 1942, these will slowly disappear, and the Egyptians will have their land back to themselves.

Perhaps, though Claudia is a member of the colonizing culture and Egyptians are the colonized, the two possess great similarities after all. Although they are strangely detached from the politics of the war in very different ways, the results are somewhat the same. And perhaps, Claudia seems to say at the end of her life, events occupy us much like one country occupies another. As England brings the war to Egypt and then (at least according to Claudia) neatly pulls it back, the war brings Tom to Claudia and just as quickly takes him away. War sweeps through Egypt and affects both the (physical) land and Claudia quite deeply, but the land -- as she sees on a visit years later -- returns to normal, the history books make this war seem as unreal as any other historical event, and though it touches Claudia forever, Claudia herself prepares to leave the world of the living and, in a relatively short period of time, so will everyone who remembers her.

Penelope United Kingdom

Last Modified: 20 March, 2002