Ondaatje Brings Light to Toronto Immigrant Struggles at the Turn of the Century – Clint Ledding

by capreviewroom

The novel In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje is a collection of short stories with each story focusing on different timelines and/or different characters. The key character is Patrick Lewis who appears in neary every story. We start off with “Little Seeds” which dictates the youth of Patrick as he grows up in Ontario. We leave Patrick behind in “The Bridge” while we see the building of the Bloor Street Viaduct in Toronto, Canada. The important characters in this story consist of Nicholas Temelcoff and Alice. Temelcoff saves Alice from certain death when she falls off the bridge that he is working on, both of these characters will be key later on in the novel. “The Searcher” and “Palace of Purification” take us back to Patrick Lewis as he falls in love with a woman named Clara, who then leaves him for another man, and then after Clara leaves, Patrick finds Alice, who was in fact a friend of Clara’s, at a play in the Waterworks. Alice will die later in the end of “Remorse” and Lewis will commit an act of arson out of rage for her death. We pick up on Patrick in “Caravaggio” where he is a secondary character to the thief Caravaggio as he escapes prison and finds love and trust in a woman named Gianetta. The novel ends with the story “Maritime Theatre” in which Lewis is reunited with Clara after attempting arson once again in which Caravaggio and Gianetta assist him.
To really grasp what the novel is truly accomplishing one must know what Ondaatje set out to do. It is clear that Ondaatje is writing this novel to give faces to the faceless migrant workers that helped shape the landscape, both culturally and physically, of Toronto both as we know it today and as it was known during the construction of the Bloor Street Viaduct. Once one accepts that this novel is about giving an entire culture recognition by slicing lives of individual migrants into digestible short stories one can appreciate the importance of the setting and how it adds to the reality that is not spoken of in the historical documents which illustrate the building of the Viaduct and Waterworks. This is well illustrated when in “The Palace of Purification” the workers who built the great monument use it themselves for something as important to them as a play which dictates the oppression that they, the builder of the very city they inhabit, are subject to every day. Patrick not only attends the play but enters it and becomes emotionally involved with the plot to the point he has to go up on stage and stop the spectacle himself as is shown on page 118, “Then he was up on stage … He leaned forward , caught the hand still trying to smash down again like a machine gun locked in habit…”.
When one takes themselves through the history of the building of these great structures, one does not come across names of those who died during building. There are no casualty lists or statues that recognize the effort and loss off hundreds upon hundreds of immigrant workers who helped built the structure of the society and the physical landscape equally as much as those who worked from within city hall. In the regards of bringing these immigrants to life and illustrating their importance to the city of Toronto and the fact that without this book that they are missing from the pages of history, Ondaatje did extremely well. The fact that the book is as enjoyable and interesting a read as it is while it has the overbearing task of taking into account a whole culture being a missing link in the historical documents makes it all the more of a success. This novel is extremely impressive because it has such an intense mix of purpose and entertainment. With lasting impressions and more than enough food for thought this novel is worth a read as it is almost a cultural staple and is essential for those who want to understand how important immigrants were during the turn of the 20th century.

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