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Thank you!

  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray


An interesting thing to note about Lion is that four of the characters—Patrick, Hana, Caravaggio, and Clara—appear in Ondaatje’s next prose book, The English Patient, a work I have written about here. In English Patient, Hana and Caravaggio become more central, Patrick dies. At the end, Clara appears in Hana’s thoughts and in letters. It’s not unheard of to have characters migrate from one book to another; it happens all the time in series like Lord of the Rings. Perhaps this migration in Ondaatje’s books is a bit different though.

Is English Patient a continuation of Lion, the fact that they are two separate books just an artifact of publishing? I don’t think so, best beloved. It is not Lion Part One, Lion Part Two. Son of Lion.

Let’s plunge once again into this fictional world.

Is there one story that weaves through both books? Not a single main one, but there are some similar themes about searching for things and people missing, about the porous nature of national borders. There is an interesting complementary relation between the use of dynamite in Lion, and Kip, a central character in English Patient, who by defusing bombs, tries to prevent things from blowing up (Dena thought of that).

But I believe Lion and English Patient are stand-alone books. They may share characters, although the Hana of English Patient is not the same Hana of Lion. Nor is Caravaggio. They are both changed profoundly by the trauma of war. Patrick doesn’t really appear in English Patient; he’s referred to. Same with Clara. The two stories may share characters but are “about” different things. We’ve talked about how English Patient is about people recovering (more or less) from the trauma of war.

What is Lion about?

About 244 pages! (Uproarious laughter).

No, no, no. Get a hold of yourself, man.

A good way to think about what a book is about is to consider how the characters change. Nicholas Temelcoff “never looks back…But he pauses now, reminded about the details of the incident on the bridge.” This occurs after Patrick has visited him in his bakery and reminds him about his work on the bridge and how he saved the nun. “Nicholas is aware of himself standing there within the pleasure of recall. It is something new to him. This is what history means…Patrick’s gift, that arrow into the past, shows him the wealth in himself, how he has been sewn into history. Now he will begin to tell stories…That night in bed shyly he tells his wife the story of the nun.”

So Nicholas becomes self-reflective and begins to tell stories. He has a sense of having done something important.

Caravaggio and Hana do not change so much in Lion; it is later in the English Patient that they do. Alice dies. Clara doesn’t change so much, her significance, along with Alice, is how they change the main character, Patrick Lewis.

Patrick begins as a little seed, living with his father in Canada’s far north. After the story of Nicholas and the nun on the bridge (Alice), he re-appears as a young man in Toronto where he becomes a searcher for Ambrose Small and meets Clara.

“He normally took months to approach someone, and at the slightest rejection, he would turn and never go back.”

With Clara, he does go back. They become lovers and travel to her friend’s (Alice Gull) farmhouse. Patrick is “…happier and more at ease than he had ever been.”

But: “There was a wall in him that no one reached. Not even Clara, though she assumed it had deformed him. A tiny stone swallowed years back that had grown with him and which he carried around because he could not shed it…Patrick and his small unimportant stone. It had entered him at the wrong time in his life. Then it had been a flint of terror. He could have easily…spat it out and kept walking, and forgotten it…So we are built.”

So: Patrick changes, but there is a wall inside him he cannot get rid of.

But: “She had entered him like a spirit, bullying his private nature…She started laughing, the hair on her temples still wet after their lovemaking…As he held her, he still didn’t know who she was.”

So: Clara causes a struggle inside him.

Clara leaves him for Ambrose.

“…And you must never follow me.

It takes me a long time to forgive.

Don’t worry, Patrick. Things fill in. People are replaced.”

And then Alice and Patrick become lovers. Patrick learns more about love and connection with Alice and is deeply affected by her death. In his grief, he sets fire to a casino, is imprisoned, and then, once released, attempts to destroy the Waterworks. However, Commissioner Harris stops him and takes pity. Patrick returns to care for Alice’s daughter, Hana and ultimately journeys with her to re-unite with Clara. The wall inside him is torn away.

“All his life Patrick Lewis has lived beside novels and their clear stories. Authors accompanying their heroes clarified motives. World events raised characters from destitution. The books would conclude with all wills rectified and all romances solvent. Even the spurned lover accepted the fact that the conflict had ended.”

That’s the heart of Lion right there. The author, the implied author, the model author, accompanies its hero and clarifies the hero’s motives. We learn why Patrick pursues destruction in the context of Alice’s death, as well as in the larger context of historical and cultural events. Lion does conclude with the end of his conflict as he is united with the women in his life. Real life is not so tidy, so clear.

Being a novel, Lion has the freedom of having an ending; it is punctuated in a particular way. Lion is magnificent.


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