When an accomplished poet turns to prose fiction, there is always a danger that the intense concentration on the particulars of language necessary in poetry will divert the author’s attention from the development of character and structure that a novel traditionally requires. If, however, the author is able to use poetic power to reveal character with compression and precision, to evoke mood with imaginative psychological insight, and to write scenes of action that blaze with intensity, the poetic aspect of the prose can become a source of strength rather than a distraction or diminution. For Michael Ondaatje, a Sri Lankan-born Canadian citizen, the poetic skills demonstrated in seven books, including the highly original The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970), are at the heart of a novel that projects a dynastic sweep of an important segment of Canadian history without any of the bloated, verbose, and formulaic writing common to inferior attempts to achieve historical significance.
In a sense, Ondaatje has rethought the entire concept of the historical novel. To begin, he discards the “Great Man” theory of history, substituting instead historical unknowns whose individual character has the true stuff of human greatness, although of a variety rarely recorded in official histories. Second, instead of beginning with a panoramic sweep of major historical forces viewed from the outside and from a distance of several decades in the future, he works from a series of tiny, apparently unnoticed incidents crucial to his characters: the basic building blocks of a huge cultural movement. Then, by juxtaposing these short and apparently unrelated scenes, he holds many points of interest in a kind of narrative suspension which eventually coalesces into a whole of considerable dimensions when connections are established. In a philosophical aside typical of his authorial voice when he steps away from the action, he explains this strategy: “The first sentence of every novel should be: ’Trust me, this will take time, there is an order here, very faint, very human.’”
The trust he calls for has been earned by the seriousness of his tone and the authenticity of experience, and it is justified by the poetic intensity that grows through the restraint of immediate explanation, an intensity that creates a texture so tightly woven that a novel of 250 pages seems to have the depth of a thousand-page table crusher. The documentary realism that tends to overwhelm and then bore the reader in many long historical novels has been replaced by lyric invention, substituting piercing insight and acute observation of the critical detail for masses of factual matter. Paralleling the methods of modern film editing, which enable the audience to jump from scene to scene without sketching specific alignments, Ondaatje keeps exposition to a minimum and highlights those pieces of information he does provide. The occasional presentation of abundant technical material commands attention because of its rarity as well as by the clarity of its delivery.
Drawing on his own perspective as a double expatriate, Ondaatje, who moved to England from Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) at eleven to go to school and later to Canada to teach and write, has chosen the form of the historical novel to work toward his own version of Canadian history in the first half of the twentieth century. “Toronto is a city of immigrants but there is very little official history about who they were, what their lives were like,” he comments. In the Skin of a Lion is designed to present a true picture of one of the essential aspects of Canadian cultural experience: the blending of diverse elements and forces into a dynamic, productive cultural matrix.
Not surprisingly, the position from which he begins is that of an outsider, but Patrick Lewis (“that’s a brick of a name”) is not a late arrival to Canada but a stranger in a vast land, disconnected from roots or current social relationships. His family has lived for generations in the rural wilderness, unconscious of their own history, attuned to the rhythms of the natural world but uncertain in any social situation, unschooled in standard methods of success, indifferent to politics, and intent on mere personal survival. Lewis represents something of the hidden spirit of the land, vaguely British in origin but acultural, his responses to phenomena marked by unpolished enthusiasm, his instincts sound and his inclinations humane.
After his father is killed in a blasting accident in spite of his exceptional skill with explosives, Lewis is “blown” out of his rut and into Toronto, where he is an immigrant in the city. As he quickly discovers, the...