• Friday, May 19th, 2017

Michael Ondaatje was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka in 1943, the youngest of four children. Following his parents’ divorce in 1949, he left at the age of eleven to join his mother who went to live in London. Ondaatje’s parents, who were once wealthy, became poor. His mother worked in hotels in London to support her children and his father drank himself to death.

In England, Ondaatje studied at Dulwich College before joining his brother in Quebec in1962 and becoming a Canadian citizen three years later. He received a B.A. Degree from the University of Toronto in 1965 and an M.A. Degree at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario in 1967. He started teaching contemporary literature at York University in Toronto in 1971.

Ondaatje first made his name as a poet before becoming a novelist, an editor, a critic and a film maker. He received several awards and prizes and is one of Canada’s highly regarded and most important contemporary writers. He has two adult children and grand children from a previous marriage. Presently, he lives in Toronto with his second wife who is a novelist. They jointly edit the literary journal Brick.

In The Skin Of A Lion, Ondaatje’s, second novel, was published in 1987. It depicts the city of Toronto during its growth and industrialization in the 1920s and 1930s. Michael Ondaatje pays tribute to the immigrants who, to his astonishment and despite very difficult worker conditions, were never mentioned in Canadian archives nor acknowledged as they deserved. Although they were risking their lives in the construction of two of Toronto’s best-known landmarks: the Prince Edward Viaduct, better known as the Bloor Street Viaduct and the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant.

The novel’s title is a reference to the quotation at the beginning of the book related to the Epic of Gilgamesh – an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia – Gilgamesh mourning the loss of his dear friend Enkidu, wanting to show grievance for his death, exchanged his kingly garments for animal skins. Gilgamesh says: “The joyful will stoop with sorrow, and 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”.

Are we to understand that the protagonist, Patrick Lewis, like Gilgamesh, is grieving over his dead friend and love, Alice Gull, the former nun? Alice died while mistakenly carrying the wrong bag with the “dynamite on a timing device, a clock bomb”, oblivious to the danger and that “soon everything she held would rocket out into her”. Lewis arrives too late: “he cradled her gently, he could hardly touch her without causing pain”. She dies with her “hand gripping the side of his jacket”. Grief-stricken and heartbroken, Patrick Lewis will seek revenge for her death.

Patrick Lewis, an explosives expert, is originally from a rural logging place called, Depot Creek, in Ontario province. At an early age he has learned from his logger father how to clear the jammed logs with dynamite. Patrick is twenty-one when he moves to Toronto after his father’s death. “He was an immigrant to the city”. He works among Macedonian and Finnish immigrants. He becomes a good friend to the Macedonian immigrant, Nicolas Temelcoff, a daredevil worker who accomplishes all the extraordinarily difficult work during the building of the Bloor Street Viaduct. Temelcoff dislocates his shoulder as he rescues a nun from falling off the unfinished Prince Edward Viaduct. An event following which the nun leaves the Order for unspecified personal reasons and becomes the actress, Alice Gull.

In 1924, after working for a year on many sites in Toronto, Patrick Lewis decides to become a bounty hunter, a searcher for the unrelenting, missing theatre tycoon, Ambrose Small, who had disappeared in 1919. Between 1910 and 1919 Ambrose Small “had been the jackal of Toronto’s business world”. He was a manipulator, a self-made millionaire who purchased Toronto’s Grand Opera House and other theatres all over the province. He owned ninety-six theatres in all. While looking for Ambrose Small, Patrick falls in love with Small’s former mistress, Clara Dickens. When Clara returns back to Small, Lewis falls in love with her best friend Alice Gull.

The non-linear story concentrates on the lives of the workers of the time and the immigrants’ union movement. It intertwines fiction with reality, integrates subplots with characters that appear and disappear and outlines the gap between rich and poor as well as including two love stories. These are the elements which constitute the literary fibre of the disconnected and intricately woven stories. The author manages to tie together most of the loose ends and makes seemingly unrelated characters connect before the denouement.

The novel is made up of stories told in the early hours of the morning by the protagonist, Patrick Lewis, while driving north for four hours to Marmora, Ontario to meet his first lover, the actress, Clara Dickens, who calls him after her first lover, Ambrose Small’s, death to come and fetch her. The surreal stories are addressed to his car passenger he had adopted – the young Hana, daughter of Cato, the worker agitator in a logging camp murdered at Onion Lake and the late Alice Gull, Patrick Lewis’ second lover who died in an accident.

The author says in his novel: “Only the best art can order the chaotic tumble of events. Only the best can realign chaos to suggest both the chaos and order it will become… The first sentence of every novel should be: Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human”.

Ondaatje, who is an immigrant himself, is the compassionate voice of all the workers who have been silenced and erased from the official records, unlike the millionaire, Ambrose Small, or the powerful, city commissionaire, R. C. Harris, whose names are recorded for posterity.

Ondaatje says: ”Toronto is a city of immigrants, but there is very little official history about who they were, what their lives were like. I didn’t want to talk about politicians or historical figures. I wanted to talk about the people who were unhistorical – all those invisible professions that lay behind history”. That is the historical, missing gap that Ondaatje succeeds filling in by writing In The Skin Of A Lion, challenging official historians, who have preferred immortalising some names while intentionally ignoring others.

In The Skin Of A Lion is the first Project Bookmark Canada on Canada’s literary trail. The Project Bookmark Canada is a Canadian literary trail connecting hundreds of Book-marks in cities, towns and other areas across the country. The Project Bookmark Canada plaque which has Ondaatje’s biography and an excerpt from his novel, was unveiled in Toronto in 2009 at the Bloor Street Viaduct, by the Toronto Mayer at the time, David Miller and by the author himself, Michael Ondaatje.

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Category: Book Reviews
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