An Affectionate Chaos by Pé Tolfo

by capreviewroom

Only the best art can order the chaotic tumble of events… can realign chaos to suggest both the chaos and order it will become.

This is Michael Ondaatje giving us, in simplest terms, the purpose of his art, and his novel In the Skin of a Lion. Jumping from character to character, dream to reality, and shaping time as though pliant, we as readers find ourselves searching for the history of Canada – a homeland Ondaatje suggests many know not of.

Ondaatje’s portrait of an early Toronto, and the foundation of foreign work ethic upon which it was built, reads under the guise of historical fiction, but a history molded by his vision. With that said, it can be rightfully assumed that just as Patrick Lewis, one of the stories protagonists, searches for the lives his friends in the Riverdale Library, so did Ondaatje take months of research to craft careful renditions of a plummeting nun, the disappearance of Ambrose Small, the daredevils of the Bloor Street Viaduct, and even the communities of immigrants learning their language through song, stage, and “talkies” – all of which based upon a reality he found missing from our history textbooks.

It should come as no surprise to first time Ondaatje readers that he began his career as a poet. Imagery, metaphor, and the stunning diction at his disposal make the work as much poetry as historical fiction, but it would be misguided to assume that his prose poetry works solely as the flourishing of a great writer. His phrases tumble and turn to suggest the chaos of the characters lives, and to juxtapose the subject matter; the scope of the novel focuses on the strength and labour upon which Toronto now stands, but the heart of the novel is the beauty and form of those of whom offered up their strength. It’s his language, and his constant use of flashback and dreamscape, that causes the reader to comb out a linear plot, in so doing discover purpose and theme. Without having initially intended, we find ourselves assuming the skin of the laborers, some of whom offer it willingly: “pulling wet hides out after them so it appeared they had removed the skin from their own bodies.” Just as Patrick comes to discover that “he is the one born in this country who knows nothing of the place”, we find an entirely different Canada from the nation of equality we’ve grown to understand.

Ondaatje would not be classified as an easy read. His works often walk a fine line between the boundless interpretations of poetry and the plot wielding truth of fiction – In the Skin of a Lion is no exception. It is a beautiful entry into one the worlds Ondaatje loves to create of what some take for granted as familiar. If Ondaatje did set out to shake the reader, just as the characters within his sensual and powerful prose poem, he does so not only effectively, but affectively as well.


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