Michael Ondaatje writes amazing poetry. Just peruse the redolent imagery of Rat Jelly or the sepia tones of The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left-handed Poems to feel the visceral impact that his writing can bring to the psyche in just a few short lines.
In many ways, In the Skin of a Lion, which won a governor-general’s award in the late ‘80s, can be seen as his most poetic novel.
At times, the work is a narrative journey of transitions. Patrick is from an immigrant family but, due to both a strict upbringing and personal volition, he initially lacks a sense of community.
Although his Finnish father Hazen teaches him how to use explosives, he does not show Patrick how to interact with the new society he has emigrated to, or the older society he has emigrated from.
Hazen also cannot interact with his son on a personal level, and so Patrick cannot relate to his father, ancestral heritage, nor to his home and native land. Rootless, he looks for a community to mirror his sense of isolationism, and he finds it with the anarchist movement of the day.
As we follow the journey of boy to man, Ondaatje runs a parallel gamut between lover and loved. Love for Ondaatje is an elusive will-o-the-wisp. It is to be chased and perhaps shared for a time, but it is never to be possessed or even fully understood.
Much the same can be said Ondaatje’s characters’ love for their city. It is initially brimming passion-filled and poorly defined. The tortured groans of a city with growth pains mirrors the metamorphosis of the citizens within.
Melding metaphors of darkness and light throughout, Ondaatje links the labours of the blue-collar workers with the planners and engineers. His narrative gives additional historical weight to the contributions of immigrant labour and his historic reference material helps to bolster his tale. Somehow, the workers become equal partners in this birthing of a metropolis through Ondaatje. Polar opposites realize they share a common vision.
But first, the mystery.
As much as the mystery is a vehicle for the grander themes encompassed in the novel, it covers a lot of interesting history along the way. There are imagined adventures among the (very real) anarchists of the ’20s and ’30s in Toronto.
Other historical tidbits are intertwined with the mystery, lending it a certain narrative solidity.
On other occasions, however, the tale falls solidly into the camp of magical realism. Surreal sequences pulse in and out of the work like a lucid dream.
This hypnogogic state, the place between sleep and wakefulness, exists throughout the novel without definition, transition or explanation. Hanging above and around it all, like a smoggy miasma, is the pervasive mystery involving construction and destruction. There is a missing millionaire and his mistress, anarchists and socialites, communists and capitalists, and a falling nun.
Through them all, Ondaatje weaves the commonality of the famous and the infamous. There are many well-known historical references within, such as the construction of the Prince Edward viaduct, the water treatment plant, and the afore-mentioned falling nun. However the book is more concerned with the lesser-known history of Toronto’s immigrants, and how they were influential in both the past and the present.
By blending history with magical realism, Ondaatje manages to equate the marginalized with the industrialized. Evocative and lyrical, a very poetic narrative, this novel is Ondaatje at his finest.
The era and characters are so vibrant they are violent, mere reality cannot contain their vastness.
Jason Wiggins is owner of The Book Place at 248 Third Ave. downtown.