Penelope Lively



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Penelope Lively

Moon Tiger (1987) is mostly a virtuoso exercise of narration. Some of the book is told in the past tense, and some in the present tense, and it alternates narrative voices, some narrated in the first person by the protagonist (as if it were being reenancted rather than just remembered) and some narrated in the third person about the protagonist, as if told by a witness of the events that happened in the past. Lively's passages can be very poetic but the random non-chronological assembly of them amounts to little in terms of pathos and metaphysics. It feels mostly like the writer is playing an elegant game with the vocabulary. The book contains a lengthy meditation on war, as she talks about the second world war and about the fear of the nuclear holocaust. And the book is, of course, a hidden, disguised meditation on death, that culminates with the protagonist, who is dying, readind the diary written by a soldier before dying, a preparation of sorts for her own journey to the otherworld.

Claudia is an old historian who is lying in a hospital bed in critical conditions (a nurse refers to her as if she already died) and thinks of writing a history of the world that will also be a history of herself, because each person's view of the facts is different. She starts by recalling her childhood with her older brother Gordon. They were rival in everything, to the point that one day she prayed God to erase Gordon from the Earth. They never really knew their father, who died in WWI. The story than jumps ahead to when she was 38 years old and had a lover named Jasper and she got pregnant of her child Lisa. They never got married and Lisa grew up mostly with her grandmothers. Jasper's mother was an aristocrat. Then the story backtracks to right after WWII, when Gordon married Sylvia (whom Claudia considers utterly stupid) while disapproving of Jasper. Gordon becomes an international scholar, commuting between Oxford in Britain and Harvard in the USA. Claudia remembers when she, Gordon and Sylvia visited the historical park of the Mayflower colony. Claudia meditates about the power of language and remembers her daughter Lisa. We hear the conversation between Claudia and Jasper at Lisa's wedding. Jasper had become wealthy and Claudia had just published her book on Tito. Her daughter Lisa is now sitting next to her in the hospital. Lisa is married with children. She talks to her mother but then talks to herself and we can hear that she does not truly love her mother, that she even mocks the way Claudia always thought she knew her when in fact she knew almost nothing of her. In particular, Lisa has a secret lover, Paul. Claudia's thoughts are already wandering elsewhere: Jasper's Russian father, a relic of the revolution, the massacres of World War II, her four years as a war correspondent in Egypt during that war, her love affair with officer Tom... We learn the meaning of the expression "moon tiger": it's a mosquito-repellent coil used in Egypt that burns all night on the bedside table. Just like her stream of consciousness as she is dying. The relationship with Tom lasted for a while, until he was killed in battle. She was pregnant of his baby but she had a miscarriage. Mostly this love story is a pretext for some meditation on war. Meanwhile, Lisa is by her bedside and the nurse tells Lisa that Claudia, in her terminal sleep, seems to be reenacting her childbirth. At the end of the war she returned to Britain and rejoined Gordon. Their relationship was almost incestuous: she couldn't see any man as attractive as she saw her own brother. Claudia was even jealous of his wartime girlfriend. He had served in the secret services and now was returning to his research. He met Sylvia one year after the end of the war. Claudia never felt jealous of Sylvia, though. Claudia already started writing a history of the world. Jasper took her to an important meeting where he was looking for connections to start a career, but instead it was she who met an important man, Hamilton, who offered her a job, and she quickly became a famous journalist. Jasper was jealous of her fame but he quickly started making money in banking. She was still mourning Tom when she started the affair with Jasper. At the age of 46 she published her book on the Spanish conquistador Cortez. It became a bestseller and a film adaptation was started in Spain. She consulted on the set of the film. One day she was in the car with the main actor. The driver lost control of the car and the car crashed. The driver died, the actor was severely injured, she got away with minor injuries. She returned to Britain and took the eight-year-old Lisa to the zoo with Jasper. That day Claudia told Jasper that she wanted to live alone, without him. That was the year when the Soviet Union invaded Hungary and installed a puppet regime. Thousands of dissidents were arrested. A stranger called Claudia from Hungary and, certain that he was soon to be arrested, begged her to take care of his son Laszlo. Claudia did what she could for the teenager, helping him to study art and become a painter. One day Laszlo confessed to her that he was homosexual. Lisa never quite liked him. Laszlo comes to visit Claudia as she lies dying. Claudia asks him to bring her a parcel from home. Then Claudia reminisces when Gordon died, five years earlier, a loss from which she never recovered. Laszlo had sensed that their relationship was more than the love between a brother and a sister. Laszlo delivers the parcel that Claudia wants. It is Tom's diary, written in Egypt up until the day he was killed in the war. His sister figured out that Claudia must be the woman mentioned in it and mailed it to her. Claudia now reads it again until the last sentence, written just before death. Claudia meditates that she is now twice the age that Tom was when he died. Claudia closes her eyes and listens to the rain and other ordinary sounds, waiting patiently for her turn to die.
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