Lured by rumors of Michael Ondaatje’s heady prose and some popular as well as critical success, I had no qualms in grabbing his 1987 In The Skin of a Lion next out of the Nobel Prize candidate stack. There ARE other worthy Canadian candidates, Alice Munro and Margaret Attwood come to mind, but as a sucker for poetic-leaning narrative, I took the bait (putting to rest the lame fishing metaphor..)
Prior to opening this, Michael Ondaatje’s second novel, I was aware that its sequel, The English Patient had won a Booker prize, and also that he is noted to be an accomplished poet. One sentence bio: born in Sri Lanka, he moved first to England and then finally to Canada in1962 where he became a Canadian citizen….
Set in Ontario and primarily Toronto of the 20’s and 30’s the novels characters, (the ‘six stars and a moon’ referenced in the opening authorial aside) are immigrants who have roles to play out in the construction of the city. This aside to the reader is key to the conceit for the narrative’s style:
This is a story a young girl gathers in a car during the early hours of morning….she listens to the man as he picks up and brings together various corners of the story, attempting to carry it all in his arms. And he is tired, sometimes as elliptical as his concentration on the road….
It gives Ondjaate’s narrator a license to freely work and shape his memories, to “suggest order to the chaos” and create a history out of the backwoods immigrant Patrick Lewis’s story. As a young boy, we learn early on that he is acutely aware of minutiae in his surroundings… Nah, too much plot summary for this blog… you can wiki here if you want it spoiled.
The narrator is aware that he is linking together fragments of his memories as the narration occurs. Ondaatje uses a technique of narrative pull-backs, of creating two ‘present’ tenses in the story: time present in the darkness of the car ride, as well as the present tense in each storyworld scene as it occurs. The modal verb, ‘would’ (as in ‘years later he would…) facilitates this pull-back device and is exploited freely to extend details in the story to bestow historical significance, since the narrator is aware of his role as a teller of a tale, a choreographer of fate. I found what seems to set this novel apart ,beyond its stylistic elements, is its extreme ontological awareness. (apologies for the pretentious term), the cognition of place of each character in their historical-cultural landscape. So why should you care? Simply because what stands out in this tale, what seems to be a break in the magnetic attraction to doom: that its the opposite of the vast majority of premises implicit in current literary fiction: do I need to even repeat the litany? inhuman, bleak, absurd, hopelessness and so (not) on. Ondaatje’s characters in The Skin of a Lion actually have an affect in their interaction with their landscape.They are actioners as well as reactioners. They are not all “unhistoric” (my favorite word in the novel):
This is what history means. He came to this county like a torch on fire and he swallowed air as he walked forward and he gave out light. Energy poured through him. That was all he had time for in those years. Language, customs, families, salaries. Patrick’s gift, that arrow into the past, shows him the wealth in himself, how he has been sewn into history.
You would find (its addicting, this ‘would’) if you read the novel, references to each character’s ‘horizon’, their centeredness in it at that particular time. Ondaatje’s links this sense of the characters individual horizon’s on a level outside, above the story level itself, to create a vast diorama of some criticial events in the construction of the Toronto’s, polyglot cultural history. This linking of landscapes is one of the ways the narrator attempts to ‘gather all the corners of the story’.
The elliptical prose can be evocative and atmospheric as well as revel in minutia: it IS gorgeous. The depth perception enabled is impressive: between the close-ups lending a tactile quality, a felt texture to the story’s visible surfaces, to the sudden view from the heights. I at first admitted to a problem with some character dialogue pitched in the same register as the narrative. This especially occurs in exchanges between our hero, Patrick and his two haunting loves, Clara Dickens and Alice Gull. But a quick flip back to the all important open settled matters.
In the epigram at the novel’s beginning, we see a translation from an excerpt of the Epic of Gilgamesh: “I will wander through the wilderness in the skin of a lion…” a mention should be made to its connections in the text. I will crucify by oversimplification: ‘Skin’s’ are a referent to the immigrant’s abilities to assimilate to their new landscape. It is often all that exists between the self and its survival. It is not only a protector from the elements, it can often be a mask or a means also of escape from threat. The protagonist significantly works at one point for a leather goods manufacturer, and is cutter of raw unprocessed cattle skins.
What I Took Away:
The American novelist, Stanley Elkin once said that a novel either says Yes or it says No. Though doubtful character trajectories abound in the book and it is rampant with its hard scrabble times. The novel’s landscape, though not windswept, can be survivable, as long as one as a sense of their horizon…if You ‘would ‘ read this book.