Last week, I threatened to write about In the Skin of a Lion’s narrative structure. Going to do it today. The book is often described as being a prime example of post-modern narration, and that links up with the quote from John Berger. “Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.” Post-modern narratives offer converging stories, stories told from different perspectives about the same events.
Let’s consider the second section of the novel, “The Bridge.”
“The Bridge” tells the story of the construction of the Prince Edward Viaduct in Toronto, circa 1918. It’s told from the perspectives of four entities: a narrator, Nicholas Temelcoff, an unnamed nun, and Commissioner Harris. The narrator starts things off:
“A truck carries fire at five a.m. through central Toronto, along Dundas Street and along Parliament Street, moving north.” The narrator continues to describe the construction workers arriving at the bridge work site, showing this with the powerful image of a flat-bed truck moving through the dawn, carrying a burning cauldron to melt tar. A moving object of fire in the darkness. The narrator discusses the construction of the bridge, presenting information in what I want to call a “documentary” style:
“There are over 4,000 photographs from various angles of the bridge in its time-lapse evolution. The piers sink through bedrock fifty feet below the surface through clay and shale and quicksand—45,000 cubic yards of earth are excavated. The network of scaffolding stretches up.”
One gets the sense of the narrator being in a library or archive, turning the pages of albums full of old photos, marveling at the magnitude of the project. I think too, the passage is reminiscent of the voice-over to a documentary film. Time-lapse?
Calling Ken Burns.
In fact, this is exactly what Michael Ondaatje did, spending weeks, it’s said, in the Toronto Public Library, researching Lion. So is the narrator Michael Ondaatje? This imagined narrator’s voice? How is it that the text, made from ink and paper, evokes a clattering documentary film?
Next, an extremely cinematic scene is described:
“During the political ceremonies a figure escaped by bicycle through the police barriers. The first member of the public…cycling like hell to the east end of the city. In the photographs he is a blur of intent. He wants the virginity of it, the luxury of such space. He circles twice, the string of onions that he carries on his shoulders splaying out, and continues.”
Again, you get the sense of someone in the future looking at photographs—but now there is something new. “He wants the virginity of it, the luxury of such space.” There’s a sensuous cue for the reader of carrying a string of onions on one’s shoulders, the way they splay out with motion of the bike. Either the narrator is imagining how the cyclist thought and felt, or the text has swooped in to the cyclist’s consciousness. Or both. And in either case, the narrator's poetic language is being used, not the cyclist's.
(Irritating, whiny voice: Mr. Pretentious Bully, Mr. Bully, excuse me, sir, but you just asked some questions and didn’t answer them. I’ve been waiting for the answers. Who is the narrator? Will you please explain it now?)
Clearing throat. Yes, thank you for reminding me of something I was trying to avoid. Who let you back in anyway? But, yes, who is the narrator? Maybe if you could bear with me a bit, it will become clearer. Maybe—have you ever heard of rhetorical questions?
Aside—turn that microphone off!
Next a story is presented involving a character who becomes quite important later on—Caravaggio, who is working on the bridge and has an argument with a foreman. It’s said, he is angry, and that, when he “quits a year later he will cut the thongs with a fish knife and fling the blocks into the half-dry tar.” (this refers to the tools the men use to work with tar). So the narrator appears to be looking at a photo or grainy documentary film of the men working on the bridge, and focuses on a particular individual whose feelings are imagined. And what he will do a year later is described.
Is this omniscience? The narrator “sees” old photos of the bridge and is able to also see inside the people and the events of a year later.
Now, the style shifts. We have the close third-person story of Commissioner Harris, first in a description in imperfect tense of how he “would” go to see the bridge at night, and then a particular night when he witnesses a group of nuns who walk onto the uncompleted bridge in the darkness. One of their party is blown by strong winds off the bridge.
It’s of note that, not only were the Prince Edward Viaduct and Commissioner Harris real, but there was an incident of a nun being blown off the bridge, her body never found. Of course, the fictional nun survives and becomes a major character in the novel.
That night, ropes off the bridge suspend a man named Nicholas Temelcoff, a daredevil construction worker. He catches the nun as she falls; the shock of it dislocates his shoulder. They hang on to each other and perilously make their way to safety. They go to a restaurant that’s closed for the evening, are let in, and Nicholas sits with the nun, who does not speak or otherwise reveal her name. This story is told through the perspectives of both Nicholas and the nun, passing freely back and forth, moving very close into their consciousness.
There is quite a bit of story presented about Nicholas and how he emigrated to Canada from Macedonia, how he became expert at daredevil maneuvers as a construction worker, powerful images of how he flies through space and fog. There is also more general information about the emigrant experience, learning to speak English by watching silent films and listening to popular music.
The section ends with Nicholas returning to work and hearing about the nun’s disappearance, an event he does not speak of. A year later, it’s written that he will open a bakery with the money he’s earned working on the bridge.
One of the things we should note here is the writer’s very fine control of distance, meaning the way the text zooms in and out, sometimes in what I’m calling documentary style, sometimes in intense close third-person narration. It’s difficult for me not to use film metaphors, because I think they’re evoked so strongly in Lion. Zoom.
Okay, those questions. Is the narrator Michael Ondaatje? Nah, the narrator is pretty close to the writer, but the writer—Ondaatje—is writing about the narrator. They are separate. Is Lion an example of omniscient narration? No, sir. This is somewhat a judgement call, but an omniscient narrator is defined as one who knows everything, the whole story, and I don’t think that’s what’s being presented in Lion. There is a lot the narrator doesn’t know—for instance, why does the nun decide to take advantage of the accident which provides the freedom to change her life? The narrator shows her obviously struggling to decide but there’s nothing about how or why she decides, about who she is or was. As the book develops, the reader must infer this for her/himself. In this episodic story, there is a lot of space. I don’t think the narrator pretends to know what’s going on all the time.