A Sense of Realism

by willspeterson

Michael Ondaatje’s novel In the Skin of a Lion is a fictional account of the working class on the building of the Bloor Street Viaduct and the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant. This story uses historical accounts to outline the struggle that the immigrants faced while creating these landmarks for the city of Toronto. This story is not told in a conventional linear fashion, with Ondaatje using poetry (of which he himself has an extensive collection), throughout the whole story.  He also mixes historical events and persons (the disappearance of Ambrose Small, and the deaths of the Finnish labour union persons ((even if he has to then fictionalize events because of the unknown nature of these stories.)) The story itself revolves around Patrick Lewis, his life, how his experiences in work and romance, help Ondaatje to grow Patrick into a young adult.

Even though Ondaatje frequently explains many of the key events in a through manner his use of poetry forces the reader to become engaged in the story, in hopes to understand it, therefore some of it may, at, first be unclear to the casual reader.  His depictions of sexual interaction between Patrick and Clara (later Alice) show Patrick’s weakness in social situations, that he is easily swayed by others around him. He becomes a product of their ideology. In Alice’s case, his conversation with her provokes him to become an anarchist.  This weakness that Patrick inhibits is a great enabler for Ondaatje to promote his purpose of the novel, which is the recognition of the working class immigrants during the building of the bridge and the filtration plant.  In The Skin of a Lion is a great example of an author’s ability to use language and his characters as a vehicle to promote his viewpoint and Ondaatje is successful in doing so.

Moreover, Ondaatje, not only uses his characters effectively, the use of allusions is paramount in bringing about the thematic purpose of the novel. Part of what makes this story so engaging, is the fact that, Ondaatje uses allusions (historical persons, places, a continuous reference to The Epic of Gilgamesh among others, to bring about a sense of realism in the story. This is particularly why I enjoyed this book. He uses allusions, to actual events or people to show the struggle immigrants had.

In the Skin of A Lion is a culmination of Ondaatje’s historical findings on his fellow immigrants, in the city of Toronto, and proceeds to tell the story in a poetic manner, while maintaining realism through the use of real objects.


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