Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In an interview while he was writing the novel, Ondaatje said he disliked “political theses” and needed “to be affected emotionally or in a sensual way” before a story took hold. In Patrick Lewis he created an old Ontario boy, with an Irish first name and a Welsh surname, whose work brought him together with tarrers and tanners, whose heart made him open to radical ideas, and whose experience with explosives made him valuable to the radicals. The closest Patrick gets to the real money and power is when he tracks down Small and nearly blows up Harris.

Ondaatje does not sit in judgment on his character, nor does he ask readers to do so. Small is seen sitting in meditation toward the end of his life, as though looking for something better than his capitalistic ventures could produce; Harris is seen dreaming of a city that was never built, much as Hana dreams of favorite places in the city. Patrick is often seen under water, whether trying to rescue a cow or destroy a city project. The most morally ambiguous character is Caravaggio, a house painter who prefers to rob houses. Caravaggio has the last name of a famous Renaissance artist who insisted on painting people as he saw them, warts and all, and who tried to keep his amoral lifestyle private. Ondaatje’s Caravaggio has the anonymity that a novelist might well admire.

Ondaatje takes his title from the ancient Sumerian creation epic. The epic hero Gilgamesh promises to mourn the death of his best friend by wandering the earth “in the skin of a lion.” As Patrick tries to make sense of his memories, he recalls a story Alice once told him: a group of actresses took turns improvising parts of a story, each one putting on an animal pelt to signal that she was going to play her role. Patrick too takes on a role as he tries to revenge Alice’s death. Perhaps anyone who seeks revenge must do so.