World War II and Personal History in Lively's Moon Tiger

Jason Roach '91

If the World War II years represented an awakening of sorts to Wole Soyinka, then they represent a turning point or a point of identification for Claudia Hampton in Lively's Moon Tiger. Claudia's concern for differentiating between history as collective or as private is given a test in World War II, as are many of her other beliefs about time and the simultaneity of events. Egypt, having been granted independence in 1936, is nonetheless in many respects a British colony. Claudia's experience in Cairo during World War II, both with Egyptians and foreigners, illustrates the ambiguous nature of race relations between Europeans and natives of the colonies. Claudia's return to Cairo at age 67 provides for an analysis in hindsight of both her theory of history and for a reprise of the impressions of colonialism and its effect. It is Claudia's belief that "a lifetime is not linear bu instant. That, inside the head, everything happens at once" (68). Hence her concern for strata, for excavation of events and people, her career as a historian. As Moon Tiger is, in effect, Claudia's recollections on her death bed, it is also particularly relevant that she also ascribes who she is to events which took place in Egypt during World War II. "Not even the most maverick historian -- myself, perhaps -- would deny that the past rests upon certain central and indisputable facts. So does life: it has its core, its centre" (70).

Claudia considers her core event meeting Tom, falling in love with him, and his subsequent death. These events make her what she is. The days she spends with Tom in Cairo challenge her conceptions of history. Asking herself the importance of Cortez to her, "How does it defy chronology and mesh into my unimportant seventy-six years? Like everything else: it enlarges me, if frees me from the prison of my experience; it also resounds within that experience" (158-9). Her time with Tom belies this conception of history as collective. "For there are moments, out here in this place and at this time, when she feels that she is untethered, no longer hitched to past or future or to a known universe but adrift in the cosmos." Here, at the core of her life, all sense of order has abandoned her, and rather than be able to hold forth on the dichotomy of personal and collective history, she feels utterly cut off from it. Tom is an oasis to Claudia, their shared experience. It is both through and with Tom that she experiences World War II, attempting to get out into the desert again to experience the sights and sounds that he does. "There is another voice, but it is one that only I hear. Mine -- ours -- is the only evidence" (70). This, then, is the coincidence of the notions of core and personal v. collective over which Claudia obsesses. With Jasper, Lisa, Laszlo, and others, Claudia is a maverick, she functions in rivalry, opposition, or independent coexistence with others. With Tom the notions lose their relevance, as her World War II is "more indistinct and yet clearer by far. This dimension has smell and feel and touch" (50). Falling in love with Tom changes Claudia's relationship to the war. Her tension and waiting for Tom bring her closer to the event. No longer removed, she becomes an explicit participant for one of the few times in her life, the war "no longer prowling on the perimeter" (117).

In contrast to Soyinka's Nigeria, Claudia's Egypt of World War II is already in the process of distancing itself from its colonial past. This is most explicit in the race relations portrayed by Lively. The Egyptian royalty, she notes, are treated as jokes. Egyptians are not allowed in British clubs and there is little or no interaction between them. Indeed, as Rommel built momentum across Africa she reports "German of ficers welcome here" signs in shop windows. In her later trip to Egypt, Claudia realizes that the polo grounds and the British clubs have disappeared just as soundly as the ancient city of Memphis. For the Egyptians, Claudia believes, were not participants in World War II as were the European powers. Memories of the British have been largely erased in Egyptian post-colonial history, and although British buildings were replaced with hotels for tourists, for other foreigners, World War II is not a personal matter for Egypt, they were only observers, when even that. "When Egyptians speak of the war they mean the Israeli war, not ours, which wasn't after all anything to do with them" (116).

Penelope United Kingdom

Last Modified: 20 March, 2002