In the other two Michael Ondaatje novels I’ve read (Anil’s Ghost–Dec. 11 comments–and Divisadero—Nov. 7 comments), this superlative writer soars through time and space unconstrained. In the Skin of a Lion he stays in his home territory of Ontario, with Toronto as the hub of the action. Moreover, the novel sticks to a defined couple of decades and is a work of social protest as much as it is anything else.
I once again give credit and thanks to Randy, my Canadian son-in-law, for the gift of this fine work. He’s also referred me to another Canadian writer whom you’ll hear about later.
The title and epigraph are from the epic of Gilgamesh, the ancient Sumerian story of a mythical king who undertakes dangerous quests both on earth and in the netherworld with a close companion, then wanders in sorrow after the friend dies.
The joyful will stoop with sorrow, and when you have gone to the earth, I will let my hair grow long for your sake, I will wander through the wilderness in the skin of a lion.
The lion’s skin is at once a shroud, a hair-shirt of mourning, a camouflage for protection, and a mantle of storyteller. All of these are appropriate images for the trio of protagonists Ondaatje uses to tell the story of the triumph of Canadian industrialism and of its victims. The book’s connections between fiction and reality require more research to reconstruct than I’m willing to to do here, but suffice it to say that the Bloor Street Viaduct, circa 1917, and the Toronto Water Works of the 1930’s are huge public works projects that here represent the transformation of Canada from an agricultural society to a more urban and commercial one.
The process of the transformation leaves behind piles of corpses and opens the way for unparalleled venality, criminality, and big-money callousness. The master builder Harris (a real-life figure) has his empire-like dreams; the disappeared impresario Ambrose Small (also real) has his swindles; and each represents a different aspect of the uncaring combine that cuts down and blows up the rights and lives of poor laborers as indifferently as it destroys trees and earth.
Bertolt Brecht, I believe it was, who commented that people take on the physical and spiritual occupations of their trades. Throughout Ondaatje’s work, I’ve been amazed by his wonderfully detailed and realistic accounts of craftspeople at work. Lion is another fantastic example this ability. It seems as if you could use certain passages here to set a dynamite charge or bolt an I-beam to a bridge. More important, the interaction between work and character becomes integral to the content of the book, perhaps most graphically in accounts of how the dyers in the tanning factory can never rid themselves of the color and stink of their work and how they spread the taint into the their living quarters and into the lives of their loved ones. But on to the specifics of the novel.
Patrick Lewis is the principle figure of the three men who pass the novel’s lion’s skin from one to another. A country boy whose father earns a living farming and dynamiting log jams, Patrick is left an orphan at fifteen. His father doesn’t die mishandling dynamite, but is instead crushed in a mine insufficiently timbered by greedy bosses. The youngster comes to Toronto, uses his dynamiting and digging skills to join in the brutal work of tunneling under Lake Ontario–Gilgamesh’s underworld–to bring fresh water to thirsty millions. Seeking a way out, a way to the elusive light whose images pervade the novel, he becomes a “searcher” looking to collect the reward offered for finding vanished Ambrose Small. He finds his femme fatale, Clara, instead.
Nicholas Temelcoff is perhaps the most fascinating of the three heroes. Patrick is a searcher, Nicholas is a “spinner.” He is one of the laborers on the viaduct, works in the heavens–or at least the air–instead of under the earth. He hangs by thread of a cable, swinging in space, making connections from beam to beam that others are afraid to attempt, doing so in darkness and in light and working alone. One night, he performs a feat so essential to the story and so integral to the its themes, that I won’t recount it here for fear of spoiling things for someone who hasn’t read the book. I will say that it stands for me as one of the most wonderful and fascinating episodes I’ve ever read.
Finally, we have Caravaggio, the thief, the third third musketeer of this trio Ondaatje has assembled to represent the power and the victimhood of the underclasses on whose backs modern Canada was built. Patrick speaks English as do the rulers, but he is country and a worker and so relatively powerless. Caravaggio and Temelcoff are Italian and Macedonian, respectively–not only poor, but mute in their inability to articulate themselves to those in power. Caravaggio is a likable sort, but has looked to no other occupation in his life and is married to a woman who fully accepts and even participates in his enterprises. It wouldn’t stretch things too far, I guess, to say he’s a kind of Robin Hood figure engaged in a one-man wealth redistribution project.
Grounded as the narrative is, however, it is still wrapped in Ondaatje’s gauzy surrealism. The story, he tells us in a preface, is “gathered” by a young girl “in a car during the early hours of the morning. . . . Outside, the countryside is unbetrayed. The man who is driving (picking up and bringing together various corners of the story, attempting to carry it all in his arms) could say, ‘in that field is a castle,’ and it would be possible for her to believe him.”
And in this novel, Ondaatje can tell you, indeed, that there is a field, a castle, a theater in a water plant, iguanas in Toronto, people lighted up with kerosene and bullrushes, and magnates filled with both brutality and mercy–and you will, I guarantee, believe every word