Two points of view on `Moon Tiger,' a prizewinning British novel

On this page are two reviews of the 1987 Booker Prize-winning novel, Moon Tiger, by Penelope Lively (Grove Press, New York, Andr'e Deutsch, London; 208 pages, $15.95). The Booker Prize is Britain's most important annual award for fiction and reflects established literary values. One review looks at the concepts behind the book, the other at the characters; together they suggest something about the Booker Prize - and about the enduring tensions within the novel as a form of art.

AT one point in ``Moon Tiger,'' a love story of a kind, Penelope Lively sends her Claudia on a visit to the real-life Plimoth Plantation, that carefully reconstructed village reeking of 1627 authenticity. Even the personnel there are trained to speak 17th-century English and claim no knowledge beyond their time.

Claudia can't resist offering these pseudo-Pilgrims advice based on 20th-century hindsight. ``You stick it out,'' she admonishes one of them, ``I'll tell you one thing - it works out very interestingly in the end.''

Fascination with memory and the way the present and the past exist side by side or even overlap exerts an enormous fascination for Lively. In fact, the sense of time informs the whole structure of her novel.

Readers of her earlier ``According to Mark'' will recognize another of Lively's concerns: How can you pin down history? Which participants can you believe? The whole point of history, Claudia says, is argument: ``Disagreement; my word against yours; this evidence against that. If there was such a thing as absolute truth, the debate would lose its lustre. I, for one, would no longer be interested.''

So there is no chronological order to this story. Not only are past and present jumbled, but the episodes are often repeated from a different viewpoint, but without, believe it or not, ever becoming confusing or off-putting.

``Moon Tiger'' begins with the 76-year-old Claudia Hampton announcing to a skeptical nurse: ``I am writing a history of the world.'' And so she is, in a way.

Certainly, her own story is here, the story of a brilliant, independent, not particularly likable woman, a writer of popular history who wins a well-deserved reputation as a war correspondent covering the 1941 desert campaign. The core of the book is her wholehearted tragic affair with a tank officer that tears down her cool self-centeredness and gives the reader a cruelly, beautifully evoked picture of the desert war.

This is Claudia's story, but if, as Lively insists, we are all connected to history, then inevitably Claudia must give us a ``history of the world'' also.

Certainly a reader can count on sights (and sometimes even sounds) from the past: the clash between Cortez and the Aztecs, the goings-on recorded in the Bayeux Tapestry, the Egyptians who built the tombs.

But Lively never lets us get lost in the upheavals of time and tense. She doesn't overplay her hand. All the same, I can't resist one more quotation that emphasizes her gift for bringing the past up into the present:

``We are walking lexicons. In a single sentence of idle chatter we preserve Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse; we carry a museum inside our heads, each day we commemorate peoples of whom we have never heard. More than that, we speak volumes - our language is the language of everything we have not read. Shakespeare and the Authorized Version surface in supermarkets, on buses, chatter on radio and television ... I never cease to wonder at it. That words are more durable than anything, that they blow with the wind, hibernate and reawaken ... survive and survive and survive.''

Pamela Marsh is a free-lance book reviewer.

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