4am in Cyprus is the most precious and delicious time of day. Sitting on the verandah of the house I am staying at, I realise that I only have a few hours of this cool breeze before the sun begins its rapid ascent and bakes the island with the ferocity of an open oven. The island (situated as it is) has all the beauty and culture of a typical Mediterranean country, but is only 264 km away from Lebanon. As a result, we get our fair share of the searing middle-eastern heat. Many times have I been caught in Cyprus and witnessed the unbearable stranglehold of the siroc wind that eddies in from the Sahara desert covering the island in a blanket of dirty, red dust. So far however, here in Famagusta, we have been treated to a cool, Eastern Levantine wind. Long may it last…
It has been a week exactly since I arrived, and every year I have the same goal: immerse myself in as many books as possible, not just for reading’s sake but also for writing. Moon Tiger drew my attention partly for its intriguing title and partly because I felt an affinity to the lady on the front cover. Cyprus nights can be as stifling as its days – and it’s not uncommon for its inhabitants to lie dazed and confused on a bed till the early hours of the morning. However it was the green coil burning in the bottom left of the picture that sparked childhood memories of long, mosquito-ridden evenings spent at my grandmothers farmhouse; of nights steeped in the incense of jasmine flowers, the warm exhale of baked earth, the chirrup of cicadas and of the sweet, secret wilderness just outside (and often inside) the green flaking shutters. It was a time before air-conditioning, when fans whirred all night laboriously, teasing our hot skin with intermittent relief and every bedroom had a green coil that burned through the night, warding off the blood-thirsty mosquitoes that would come thirsting for our tender, pale skin.
And that is exactly what a ‘moon tiger’ is, a green circular coil that was a common mosquito repellent in the middle-east. But here, Penelope Lively makes it an unbearable metaphor for the fleeting nature of time, of love lost, of yearning, of desire and life itself.
Claudia Hampton, the protagonist of this slim novel lies in a hospital bed, dying from cancer. She is a historian who has had a prolific career, and is determined to end her life writing decides, “I am writing a history of the world… And in the process, my own”. Anthony Thwaite who wrote the introduction to my edition underlines the starkness and the arrogance of this statement. It is a ‘hodri-meydan’ as we call it in Turkish, which translates to throwing one’s hat into the ring and challenging one’s adversary. In this case, Claudia’s arrogance is aimed at death itself which threatens to erase her from the face of the earth without a trace, with nothing to account for. For a historian, it was her life’s work to painstakingly unearth and record the smallest aspect of human life. However, as Claudia’s life burns away, just like a moon tiger, she begins her triumphant chess-game against her adversary in the most marvellous of ways: by literally collapsing time itself.
Lively manages to embed Claudia’s personal history in the prehistoric era, in the catacombs of Egypt; from the primordial mud that we crawled out of, to the glittering cosmos.
A history of the world. To round things off. I may as well – no more knit-picking stuff about Napoleon, Tito, the battle of Edgehill, Hernando Cortez… The works, this time. The whole triumphant murderous unstoppable chute – from the mud to the stars, universal and particular, your story and mine.
Let me tell you something: she manages it. Beautifully. The book has its moments where you stop, draw a breath of disbelief at the prose, the geometry of ideas, the brush-stroke of imagery and it’s not fair I tell you. It’s not fair. In a little over 200 pages Lively has created a masterpiece that delivers a bitch-slap to Michael Ondjaate’s The English Patient. Here is also a love story set in the middle-east, yet what I loved about it was that it was a distinctly female voice that truly plucked at my heart-strings. Claudia Hampton is a woman I yearn to be: a modern warrior, an Artemis, a Diana who crests the way forward rather than lurks in the shadows of her male counterparts.
She has the temerity to marry her own existence to that of the pharoahs, Prometheus and cosmic chaos itself – she was present, or rather they were present, in her time. She declares that they have lived side by side, breathed the same air, touched each other across time itself. Hell, she even does away with time itself, collapsing it like a toy concertina, proving that the concept of linear chronology is a mental trap, an error of perception. All eras, according to her decaying brain, can be lived in tandem, all at once. The neolithic exists in 2018. All we have to do is go to the beach, pick up a rock and there an ammonite winks at us from across the ages.
In short, this novel has taught me that yes, life is fleeting, yet death never really touches us. We just need to change our concept of what ‘existence’ means. And Claudia Hampton, probably my favourite female heroine of all time, does that exquisitely with lilting prose steeped with all the wisdom and knowledge of a time-keeper. As Ray Bradbury once wrote, women are ‘wonderful clocks’… which is probably why Penelope Lively was able to create a character like Claudia Hampton, who sees the world not in the masculine, linear (like old father time), but rather in the feminine plural.
The sun has come to rest on the nape of my neck now, forcing me to move. The dry creak of a lone cicada has struck up… soon a whole chorus of them will join in. I leave you with the words of Ray Bradbury, and the wonderful notion that we are eternal and time runs parallel with everything that has existed or has yet to exist in the world. In this, I whole-heartedly believe.
“Oh, what strange wonderful clocks women are. They nest in Time. They make the flesh that holds fast and binds eternity. They live inside the gift, know power, accept, and need not mention it. Why speak of time when you are Time, and shape the universal moments, as they pass, into warmth and action? How men envy and often hate these warm clocks, these wives, who know they will live forever.” – Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury