Let’s consider some implications of the narrative style of In the Skin of a Lion. Umberto Eco suggests that a text contains three entities that interact with the reader. There is the author, the real person who wrote the book. There is the narrator, who may be a character in the text who speaks in a kind of storyteller voice—identified as “I” or “We,” or who may be unnamed and nearly invisible. Then there is what Eco calls the “model author,” the style of the novel, a textual strategy—"a set of instructions which is given to us step by step and which we have to follow when we decide to act as the model reader.” And the model reader is defined as “the ideal type whom the text tries to create and sees as a collaborator.” In other words, a text cues the reader to read it in a particular way. If a story begins “Once upon a time…” we are cued to read a fairy tale.
Let’s look at how these three entities appear in Lion.
The real author’s name, Michael Ondaatje, is displayed on the cover of the edition I’ve been reading, 1987 Vintage International, and there’s a photo of Ondaatje and a brief bio on the first page. A head shot, he’s smiling, bearded. He lives in Toronto, has written several books, and is a poet as well as a novelist. Maybe the thing of most significance here is the part about being a poet. One might therefore expect Lion to contain poetic language, which it does.
The narrator appears a bit in the first section as a voice—not an “I” or a “We”, telling the reader information about logging in the early twentieth century. It is in the next section, The Bridge, that the narrator increases its presence. Last week, I wrote about this section in depth and don’t want to repeat things, but I’ll say here the narrator presents what I called a “documentary” style of telling the reader how the flat-bed truck carries fire in the dawn, how the bridge is made, how immigrants work on it, how they live in Canada. It is impersonal, as if someone is relating things learned in an encyclopedia. But that mode is then combined with the story of Nicholas Temelcoff and the nun who’s blown off the bridge, showing it in close third and first person narration.
And the model author, the book’s style, appears all through this, a subtle phantom guiding the reader with shifts in narrative style, structure, character. The beginning quote from Gilgamesh (which is picked up later on), and the introduction that shows Hana and Patrick going to get Clara, are both the model author’s work.
What is the model author’s strategy in Lion? What instructions is it giving the reader who wants to be the book’s model reader?
The title is a good start toward understanding. A quotation from the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh lets the reader know right away that the story is not fairy tale, nor a Tom Clancy style adventure. Gilgamesh? Yes, best beloved, a mythic tale about a king with superhuman power, strength, and courage who wishes to become immortal. Huh. One could say that by using this title and reference, the book is instructing the reader to read Lion as if it were an epic poem about heroism. Annick Hillger writes some fascinating stuff in her book Not Needing All the Words Michael Ondaatje’s Literature of Silence, about how Babylonian myth crops up in Lion, particularly in the portrayal of the female characters. (More on this another time).
And the other epigram at the beginning, the one from John Berger—Never again will a single story be told as if it were the only one. That’s a pretty strong instruction from the model author about how to read the story—not as a single narrative, but a collection of stories about particular events.
(Wait, wait! Hold up—how can there be this model author guy? You made this up, and you’re trying to make it seem more scholarly by dragging in Umberto Eco, who’s dead and can’t defend himself. The author, Michael Ondaatje, wrote the book. Period. I agree with the other guy—Pretentious Bully. Where’d he go anyway?)
Peering into audience. The other guy is…on vacation. However, you raise an important question.
(Let’s see you answer it then).
A real author can write more than one book, but each book has its own unique author.
To use a different language that describes similar phenomena, if the reader agrees to be seduced by the text, she/he becomes a model reader. Lion wants its readers to understand the logic of the book, the way it’s framed by the journey Patrick and Hana take, the premise that Patrick is telling Hana the story that the reader reads. It wants the reader to “get” that things begin with “Little Seeds,” a story about Patrick’s youth, that his father works with dynamite and teaches his son his trade. That dynamite and explosions are a theme throughout the book. Patrick ultimately tries to dynamite the Waterworks because of his rage and grief over Alice’s death in an explosion of dynamite. He tries to honor her anarchist beliefs by plotting to destroy the symbol of a modernist society that exploits the poor, the immigrants.
These things are all particular to In the Skin of a Lion; they do not pertain to other books by Michael Ondaatje.
Do you understand, best beloved?
Lion also wants the reader to accept and appreciate that the model author uses its own poetic language to show the inner life of people like Patrick who are not educated and literate. And it wants the model reader to understand the structure of the book, the converging narratives of Patrick, Nicholas, Caravaggio, Alice. The leaps in time—the way the story of Patrick’s youth ends and shifts to Nicholas’ story which becomes the story of how Alice stopped being a nun.
By using converging narratives, interweaving historical facts and people, by leaping around in time, Lion is offering instructions on the nature of reality in the book, a different, non-linear reality. Reality is not a linear narrative about one main character, on the contrary, the story veers deep inside other characters who reflect a story about the construction of the Prince Edward Viaduct and the Waterworks in Toronto.