In the Skin of a Lion

by Michael Ondaatje
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 347

The intertwined concepts of construction and destruction support Michael Ondaatje’s novel about the physical and social development of Toronto, Canada. By concentrating on working people from diverse backgrounds, many of whom were involved in the major public works projects through which the city expanded, the author paints a compelling portrait of a society’s growing pains. He includes substantial descriptions of the actual building processes and includes the tremendous risks the workers faced in completing such projects as bridges and tunnels. The human face of social change is crucial, however, in this as in Ondaatje’s other novels. In fact, two of the most important characters of his most famous work, The English Patient, are presented here in earlier phases of their lives: Hana and Caravaggio.

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Although Patrick Lewis is the novel's central character, Nicholas Temelcoff forms its heart. Leaving his grueling, dangerous work in bridge construction, Nicholas opens a bakery. He is an immigrant from Macedonia, but his bakery centers him within a multinational immigrant community. The bakery’s warmth parallels the communal feeling that the establishment engenders. An earlier experience, however, had connected his story with that of Patrick: while working on the bridge, Nicholas helps rescue a woman swept off by the wind. Alice, a former nun who now has a daughter, becomes the link between Nicholas, Alice’s friend Clara, and Clara’s former lover Patrick.

Throughout the novel, Patrick grows from naïve newcomer to the city, through numerous phases including domestic terrorist, to surrogate father to Alice’s daughter. He comes to terms with the idea that violent actions are not solutions. Ironically, his revelation occurs in part through his friendship with a career criminal, the petty thief Caravaggio, whom he meets while in prison for committing his first bombing. Perhaps Caravaggio will help him bomb again—but ultimately Patrick’s resolve disappears as he realizes that his true path is toward positive solutions. This includes a stronger connection to Alice’s daughter, Hana, and reconciliation with Clara, along with physically leaving the city and returning to his rural roots.

In the Skin of a Lion

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 426

In his earlier works, Michael Ondaatje embellished historical documentation with his own fictional inventions to reconstruct the legends of Billy the Kid and jazz trumpeter Buddy Bolden. In doing so, he mythologized those figures, illustrating how their extraordinary capabilities and compulsions drove them to the outskirts of conventional society.

IN THE SKIN OF A LION features a cast of characters who are similarly cursed and blessed by their unusual talents and skills. Among them are Hazen Lewis, an expert dynamiter for a logging company; Alice Gull, an actress and social activist with a murky past; Ambrose Small, a millionaire who has mysteriously disappeared; his mistress, the seductive radio actress Clara Dickens; Commissioner Harris, the moving force behind the development of Toronto’s municipal works; Nicholas Temelcoff, a Macedonian immigrant famous for his daredevilry in building the Prince Edward viaduct; and Caravaggio, a thief who trusts a dog as his only partner.

Central to the story is Hazen Lewis’ son Patrick, also an outsider. Although most of the tale follows Patrick as he eventually becomes acquainted with all the above characters, Ondaatje sometimes shifts the focal point of his narrative to detail the equally intriguing adventures of the rest of the players. Ultimately, much of the pleasure of this challenging work lies in discovering the significance of their seemingly unrelated exploits.

Bibliography

Barbour, Douglas. Michael Ondaatje. New York: Twayne, 1993. A comprehensive account of the author’s life and works, both poetry and fiction.

Cooke, John. The Influence of Painting on Five Canadian Writers: Alice Munro, Hugh Hood, Timothy Findley, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Ondaatje. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1996. An interesting look at the visual arts’ effect on Ondaatje and other prominent Canadian authors.

Jewinski, Ed. Michael Ondaatje: Express Yourself Beautifully. Canadian Biography Series. Toronto: ECW Press, 1994. Follows Ontdaatje’s odyssey from his arrival in Canada in 1962 to his Booker Prize for The English Patient thirty years later. A beautifully written story and a pleasure to read.

Siemerling, Winfried. Discoveries of the Other: Alterity in the Work of Leonard Cohen, Hubert Aquin, Michael Ondaatje, and Nicole Brossard. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994. Includes a chapter on identity issues in Ondaatje’s work and a section on oral history in In the Skin of a Lion.

Solecki, Sam, ed. Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje. Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1985. Published before In the Skin of a Lion, this collection includes many fine essays on Ondaatje’s early work. Especially pertinent are Linda Hutcheon’s essay on Running in the Family and the editor’s interview with Ondaatje.

In the Skin of a Lion

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1924

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 qualities of mind and character he possesses do not suit him for anything particularly lucrative, and he becomes a “searcher” (an indication of his real nature), paid four dollars per week to look for the legendary millionaire Ambrose Small (a Howard Hughes figure, but more vicious than Hughes), who has vanished.

While Lewis remains the protagonist of the novel, the pattern of his life through four decades becoming the controlling thread of the narrative, other characters are interwoven as Ondaatje, speaking again as authorial consciousness, talks of “bringing together various corners of the story.” Each of these other characters is an important element in Lewis’ life, as well as a distinct person alive in the crux of their combined destiny. Like Lewis, they are part of a culturally diverse and rich mixture of people drawn to the New World so they would not have to “bow to priests and dignitaries.” Yet they are still exploited by the old establishment, the British hierarchy that rules as the legacy of the colonial empire.

It is an important aspect of Ondaatje’s plan to contrast the vibrancy and ardor of these people with their undervaluing and dismissal by official cultural histories. Nicholas Temelcoff, whose story is presented so vividly in the early stages of the novel that he threatens to usurp Lewis’ central position, is a twenty-five-year-old refugee from the war in the Balkans. Arriving in Canada with no profession and no knowledge of English, he literally transforms himself into a symbol of power. His life is a positive paradigm for the immigrant experience: He learns English from the stage, earns enough money to open a bakery by his extraordinary ability to work in midair on a bridge project, and becomes a rock in the Greek community because of his warmth and quiet confidence.

David Caravaggio, for a short time also a bridge worker, eventually apprentices in a demanding, highly skilled profession open to immigrants, that of cracksman or thief. He has the special charm of a man who moves in an aura of menace but does not frighten because he is neither evil nor brutal. Although he works outside the official “law,” he is respected in the ethnic community in which he lives with his family because his field of operation is the realm of the rich. He is seen as a version of justice as vengeance, balancing accounts and, like Temelcoff, involved in insurrectionist political action. Ondaatje captures the special qualities of each man through scenes of the two men at work—Temelcoff a wonder of spatial awareness, Caravaggio a creature of super-sensory development.

Similarly, in portraying the two women to whom Lewis is close, Ondaatje presents passionate experience as the culmination of human relationships. The intimate moments that Lewis shares with Clara Dickens and especially with Alice Gull are presented as expressions of lyric delight, Ondaatje operating in his métier as romantic poet but slightly modifying the mood with touches of humor—slightly ironic, slightly surreal. “Seduction was the natural progression of curiosity,” he observes, and as Lewis and Alice Gull’s relationship progresses from erotic obsession to the ripe love of mutual discovery, the entire cosmos seems to expand with possibility.

It is Alice Gull who introduces Lewis to a sense of himself as a political person, thus channeling his energy and decency toward a specific cause that gives him the direction to grow into maturity. “I don’t believe the language of politics,” Lewis says, “but I’ll protect the friends I have.” With Alice Gull’s guidance, Lewis discovers that political action does not have to depend on familiar forms of political language and that friends can provide a community that increases the value of all experience. It is “no longer a single story . . . but a falling together of accomplices,” Ondaatje says to describe the coordination of singular impulses, and it is this process that draws Lewis out of the “gap of love” that had previously existed for his family.

Each of these characters is “sewn into history” in the rather complicated but ultimately clear structure of Ondaatje’s narrative. The separate units seem at first to be discrete entities of experience, but eventually the linear tracks begin to overlap and interweave. To fix a particular section amid complex coordinates, Ondaatje highlights that section with a set piece of unusual graphic power. In these brilliant descriptive passages, Ondaatje’s poetic power is most evident. As the novel begins, introducing Lewis when he is about eleven years old, a scene in which Lewis and his father rescue a cow from a frozen lake exemplifies the experience of cold, animals, and landscape that defines boyhood for many rural Canadians. When Temelcoff uses his uncanny agility to gather out of the air literally a nun who has fallen off the edge of the bridge he is building, the scene captures the grandeur of human will compressed into a task that defies the limits of natural law. When Alice Gull performs as a mime in a puppet theater, her effect on Lewis and others recalls the ancient, mysterious power of art to inspire and elevate an audience to ecstasy. When Caravaggio moves through a house he is ransacking like an explorer in a strange landscape, so attuned to every stimuli that he is more at home than the sensation-stupified inhabitants of the house, his pattern of observation contains an implicit commentary on Ondaatje’s own visionary style.

These heightened moments, while introducing and delineating character, are also preparation for the novel’s dramatic climax. The special skills on display—inherent in these people, then cultivated through their labor—are harnessed for the purpose of dynamiting the heavily guarded water tunnel under Lake Ontario, a symbol of civic repression in a society that does not respect the work of its citizens. Constructed so that the suspense is pulse stirring, the plan does not exactly work out to the complete satisfaction of the participants, but Ondaatje’s substitution of a situation that widens the moral issue for a conclusion that overwhelms everything with spectacular violence is an interesting choice. When Lewis and Roland Harris, the master builder of the Toronto Public Works Commission, meet in a confrontation between the champions of the underclass and the ruling class, there is at least a glimpse of a common position previously unsuspected and thus hope for a Canada that does not have to keep the classes in opposition.

“To relive those days when Alice was with him,” Lewis tries to tell their story (the story of the novel) to Alice’s daughter Hana, a story that recapitulates the past to prepare for the future. The sense of remembrance lends meaning to previous existence and, in turn, reaffirms the self as a sum of a life’s experiences, which “in literature is the real gift,” as Ondaatje explains. His novel is a direct challenge to those who have proposed that literature has exhausted its capacity for presenting that gift.

Bibliography

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 205

Barbour, Douglas. Michael Ondaatje. New York: Twayne, 1993. A comprehensive account of the author’s life and works, both poetry and fiction.

Cooke, John. The Influence of Painting on Five Canadian Writers: Alice Munro, Hugh Hood, Timothy Findley, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Ondaatje. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1996. An interesting look at the visual arts’ effect on Ondaatje and other prominent Canadian authors.

Jewinski, Ed. Michael Ondaatje: Express Yourself Beautifully. Canadian Biography Series. Toronto: ECW Press, 1994. Follows Ontdaatje’s odyssey from his arrival in Canada in 1962 to his Booker Prize for The English Patient thirty years later. A beautifully written story and a pleasure to read.

Siemerling, Winfried. Discoveries of the Other: Alterity in the Work of Leonard Cohen, Hubert Aquin, Michael Ondaatje, and Nicole Brossard. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994. Includes a chapter on identity issues in Ondaatje’s work and a section on oral history in In the Skin of a Lion.

Solecki, Sam, ed. Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje. Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1985. Published before In the Skin of a Lion, this collection includes many fine essays on Ondaatje’s early work. Especially pertinent are Linda Hutcheon’s essay on Running in the Family and the editor’s interview with Ondaatje.

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