Band 6 Ondaatje :: In the Skin of a Lion

            The representation of conceptual ideas and historical context is often focused on by authors, which allows for an enhanced perception and insight towards people and society. Ondaatje’s novel In the Skin of a Lion draws upon the social and historical anxieties of Post-Colonial Canada; where there was a substantial divide between the philosophical ethos of the working and intellectual class. Similarly, the interpersonal connections forged through intimacy are elucidated by Ondaatje. He demonstrates the changes that characters such as Patrick undergo through the clashes between interests of society and human values. Hence, through the critical study of the Time and Place within In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje, we perceive the achievement of textual integrity through the examination of an alternative perspective of history, the contention between society and the individual, as well as the transformative power of interpersonal bonds. This allows us to forge our understanding and connections with how the understanding of historical context and history itself can influence our perceptions of contemporaneous ideas.

      The foreword of John Berger “Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.” Demonstrates the postmodern, meta-fictional nature of Ondaatje’s post-colonial narrative in which the power of language utilised in his empowerment of the untold stories of workers gives them a voice. The workers which are not accounted for by history are described by Ondaatje through an imagery of dehumanizing anonymity. The assonance and metaphor of, “Men in a maze of wooden planks climb deep into the shattered light of blond wood,” and, “man is an extension of hammer, drill, flame,” create a vision of men who disappear into the scale and scope of the construction projects. Literally, they are dehumanized and simply become a part of the project itself, invisible and unacknowledged. The worker’s struggle and brutal labor is further captured in the sibilance and low modality of, “The men stood, ankle deep in salt, filling casings, squeezing out shit and waste from animal intestines.” It elucidates the imagery of the low social economic conditions of migrant workers, and the sibilance creates a sense of repetition, and giving the responders a tone of hopeless drudgery.    However, what makes Ondaatje’s text so unique is that he also explores the beauty of such physical labor. A good example of such an act comes from Temelcoff, whom engages in the ‘most dangerous work on the bridge.” The analogy, “He knows his position in the air as if he is mercury slipping across a map,” forms a graceful and intricate description of a man so profound and expert in his work that he becomes a vision to behold. Hence, through the abuse and beauty of physical labour, Ondaatje captures a holistic understanding of history. His narrative elucidate the audience to an authentic acknowledgement of history in a contemporary and modernist approach.

            Society provides for the individual, but it also demands sacrifice and conformity at the cost of the individual’s rights. This dichotomy of the individual’s dilemma is expressed in the Skin of a Lion through the curses and boons brought about by the modernisation of Canada. The absurdity of depicting Temelcoff’s work, which is so dangerous that no other men would dare replace him, as paid merely a ‘dollar’ where Commissioner Harris’ ‘tweed coat’ costs the combined week’s salaries of five workers,’ clearly acknowledges the privilege of the powerful and the exploitation of the powerless migrants. Yet, the novel shifts into fast forwards, hinting at the very foundations built by these actions. The anecdote, “In a year he will open up a bakery with the money he has saved,” as well as the synesthesia, “Ten years into the future the woman would have smelled the flour in his hair,” exemplify how exploitative history nonetheless gives back some form of recompense to its victims.The final exchange between Patrick and Harris also acknowledges this deviation between the demands of the individual and the demands of a society. Patrick can only see the world from the perspective of a victim, his world is immediate, full of rage and emotion. “Do you know how many of us died in there?” This is juxtaposed by Harris’ rhetoric, “What you are looking for is a villain.” Both intellectual and working class are segregated in their own worlds, and the conflict that arrises is as much miscommunication as it is a necessity of societal growth. Without the bridge and the viaduct, Temelcoff would not be a baker. Thus, what is holistic about In the Skin of a Lion, is that Ondaatje is not offering a post-colonial perspective, but rather offering a multiple perspective of TIME AND PLACE through its textual integrity as a postmodern novel.

         As a narrative of multiple perspectives, the novel offers insights from history, from the personal, and it also offers the abstract and conceptual connections between man and woman. Ondaatje, emphasises on the transformative power of women, particularly the humanisation of Patrick into passion and idealism. Women in history, particularly in the colonial era, are invisible. However, Ondaatje particularly emphasises the power of women, and the almost mythical quality of sex to transform their male counterparts. The title of the book is synonymous with the trials of Enkidu from the epic of Gilgamesh, in which a wild man is brought to humanity by making love to a Goddess. In this same manner, the women of In the Skin of a Lion are also goddesses, “who could condemn or bless…be able to transform the one she touched…” Likewise For Patrick, the process of love making is tied to the motif of transcendence, “In the midst of lovemaking even, he watches her… half expecting metamorphosis as they kiss. Annunciation.” The act of sex is of such power, that Ondaatje conveys’ its impact by drawing upon the biblical allusion to the birth of Christ, combined with Alice’s previous role as a Nun, to create the sense that she “Mary” would utterly transform Patrick, and thus the world: foreshadowing events at the Waterworks. Patrick, representative of the invisible, forgotten history, is central the novel. The women of his life, Clara, and Alice, are central to Patrick’s transformation. Therefore the ability for Clara and Alice to catalyse Patrick become central to the “Moment when [each person] took responsibility for the story.” Hence, that Patrick is able to ‘assume’ his own story is because of the role of the women in his life. Therefore, through acknowledging the transformative power of sex, Ondaatje elevates the notion of TIME and PLACE through the compelling human connections made. Ondaatje’s representation thus enhance our perceptions and cognition for the present and the future.

Hence Ondaatje’s work reflects upon the human condition through the utilisation of time and place, creatively reshaped through his retelling of history from the migrants perspective. Ondaatje empowers the untold stories of women, and of workers to create a post colonial observation; one that elucidates us to a new perspective of history.


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