In The Skin Of A Lion, a beautiful blur

by alanahansen

Michael Ondaatje, Canadian novelist and poet is arguably best known for his passionate imagery, impacting use of metaphor and peculiar vision. Ondaatje’s breathtaking poetic novel In The Skin Of A Lion (published in 1987) is a remarkable narrative which conveys the stories forgotten by history, the nameless faces, the sweat, the blood and the tears rooted in the historic creation of a city.  This novel, one of history, romance and friendship captivates through Ondaatje’s powerful language, pulling the reader into anarchic Toronto during the ‘20’s and ‘30’s. The reader enters into the laborious lives of the immigrants and minorities who built the city, the ones whose hearts remain embedded in the concrete.

Ondaatje’s In The Skin Of A Lion is broken up into three parts, each providing intricate and passionate connections between them. The novel begins with the unusual entrance into the childhood life of Patrick Lewis. His childhood, silent and desolate brings forth the absence of identity, proving to be significant, the true meaning behind the title In the Skin of a Lion. Patrick embarks on a journey, a journey of finding his own identity, his own personal story.

As Patrick parts from his childhood he moves to Toronto as a searcher where he crosses paths with a fearless baker, a wealthy man, a stunning actress, a passionate nun and a daring thief whose lives intertwine, serving as stepping-stones towards Patrick’s moment of transformation.  Patrick encounters romance and friendship, impacted by each story as he progresses. Ondaatje’s incorporation of several interlaced stories also emphasizes the hardship and struggle that was endured during the construction of the city.

As Patrick seeks for self-discovery, Ondaatje’s true motive approaches the surface, emerging from his extensive metaphors. Ondaatje draws attention to the fact that there is more than one version of reality. He aims to tell the story through the eyes of someone with little known identity, through the silenced unhistorical voices of Toronto; the ones that no one knew existed. “A man is an extension of hammer, drill, flame” (172). Ondaatje exemplifies the issue of history and interpretation by incorporating John Berger’s epigraph: “Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one”(3), voicing that no story should stand-alone. By incorporating mini narratives within the novel and by knitting together the different characters Ondaatje leaves the reader feeling challenged and bewildered.

Ondaatje beautifully blurs our idea of what is real and what is imagined, contrasting fact with fiction, leaving one unsure of what he or she has just read. With the use of his unique language, there is a certain harmony provided between the three parts. Although a complicated read, Ondaatje provides the reader with a thoughtful entrance into the novel, allowing he or she the opportunity to flow through each chapter. The dreamlike atmosphere in the third section is elaborate and is not ideal for the narrow-minded. His use of metaphor leaves the reader dazed but also allows for reflection as we discover that the end of the novel is truly only the beginning of the story.

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