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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

In the Skin of a Lion

This week, a new story, Michael Ondaatje’s 1987 book, In the Skin of a Lion. At times, the past becomes bit murky, but I believe I first read Lion before The English Patient, Ondaatje’s best known novel. I knew Ondaatje was a great writer and was also attracted by the Toronto and Ontario settings of the book, as my father’s family was Canadian.

(Loud whiny voice: I wanted to pick the next book. You promised I could. You said.)

I see. What is it you had in mind?

(Something more interesting than the ones you pick. If I picked a book, Mr. Big Shot, thousands would read the blog. Millions. A vampire book, or an adventure. In the skin of a what?)

Let’s move on. I have since read Lion many times (six, seven?). I often turn to it for inspiration in my own writing; the poetic prose is thrilling, the elliptical structure engrossing and mysterious. I love the story of Patrick and his love for Clara and Alice. I relish the opportunity to read it again and try to generate coherent analysis.

The title “works hard” for the story, meaning it resonates and supports a tale of love and loss. The first thing a reader may encounter (unless they skip over it, wanting to begin with Chapter One—I confess I did the first time) is a quote from the Babylonian myth-story Gilgamesh. “…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.” Does this convey rage at death? P’rraps so, best beloved. When you die, I will be so grief-stricken, I will kill the most savage of beasts and wear its skin as a symbol of my pain.

And in the story, there will be death and loss.

There is an additional quote from John Berger, “Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.” I don’t know where this is taken from, but it gives a significant clue to the book’s structure. Lion is a story told from several perspectives, although I wouldn’t call its style omniscient narration. We’ll have to look at this more closely.

(Oh, boy).

There is a story here, but it’s not told in a linear manner. The style is episodic and very close to the subjective experience of the characters. The book is often described as being a prime example of post-modern narration, and that links up with the quote from John Berger. Let’s save that issue for another week.

(Sigh of relief. Loud and theatrical).

But let’s note that the whole story is a blend of fact and fiction. Significant elements are based around “real” events, parts of Toronto’s history like the building of the Prince Edward Viaduct and the Waterworks with its intake tunnel beneath Lake Ontario. Commissioner Harris was a real person, as was Ambrose Small. A nun really was blown off the viaduct and never found.

Back to the book’s structure. Next there is a sort of introduction (in italics, which sets it off from the rest of the text) that embeds the whole story as a tale told to a young girl during a six-hour car journey to Marmora, which, if you check, is a town in Ontario between Toronto and Ottawa. This incident is not referred to again till the very end, where the reader can realize that Lion is a story told by a slightly feverish man to a young person during a long car ride. Technically, a framing device, I believe it’s called.

The first section of the novel is called Little Seeds, which refers both to an image of the protagonist being wary of retaining traces of gunpowder on his clothes which might ignite, and to the image of a human growing from experiences which might be called seeds. (We should note that explosions are a central motif in the story—boom!). The novel begins, “If he is awake early enough the boy sees the men walk past the farmhouse down First Lake Road. Then he stands at the bedroom window and watches: he can see two or three lanterns between the soft maple and the walnut tree.”

We might remark right off that this is in present tense (the whole section later shifts to past). There is an immediacy here, a raw description that puts the reader deep into the subject’s sensual experience. A child attends to things adults take for granted; he is entranced by lantern-light moving among trees.

The beginning goes on to develop what the boy is watching, the way the men (loggers) stop to let a herd of cows pass and reach out to touch the animals to gather some of their body heat. “The boy who witnesses this procession, and who even dreams about it, has also watched the men working a mile away in the grey trees. He has heard their barks, heard their axes banging into the cold wood as if into metal, has seen a fire beside the creek where water is molecular and grey under the thin ice.”

Whoa! That’s mighty fine writing. Readers of this blog probably know what I’m going to say—yes, there is a narrator entity telling the story. An entity who knows the boy’s experience, even his dreams, his imagination. But who translates it to a poetic, adult language. It would be a rare child who would experience hearing “axes banging into the cold wood as if into metal,” or that water could be “molecular and grey.” It's not Patrick telling the story to Hana during the journey to Marmora—his language is also not so poetic. An entity is mediating the boy’s experience. It is the style of the book; it is the implied author.

More next week.


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