20 feb. 2008

In the Skin of a Lion


When talking about Canada as a country and its own History, we get to know that Canada as a country, has long been characterized by its diverse ethnic composition. For this reason, I have chosen Michael Ondaatje to characterize Canada's diversity. He is a Sri-Lankan Canadian writer, perhaps best known for his Booker Prize winning novel adapted into an Academy-Award-winning film, The English Patient. However, I consider his novel In the Skin of a Lion a great book in which Ondaatje portraits the “unofficial” stories associated with anonymity and passivity of immigrants in Canada’s “official” History.

In this book, the process of reconstructing personal narratives and the act of telling them involves a creative process by which characters become aware of their importance in history and they begin telling their “stories”. For these writers, to take responsibility for one's own story is a way of legitimising and appropriating one's life to compensate for historical omissions. To account for the omissions and partiality of the “official history” of Canada, the alternative the author presents is to celebrate a plurality of private and / or local narratives that give voice to the forgotten peoples, creating in this way a poliphonic text in which minorities can tell their personal stories and the stories of their cities leaving aside their anonymity and passivity and becoming part of it.

In the Skin of a Lion it is set mainly in Toronto, Ontario, and tells the story of immigrants who built the city. By doing so, Ondaatje gives a voice to the blood, sweat and tears of these workers who have never been recognized by 'official' history. Ondaatje gives importance to the construction of Toronto landmarks, such as the Prince Edward Viaduct and the R.C. Harris Filtration Plant, and he focuses on the lives of the immigrant workers. While writing about Toronto’s History, many characters become aware of the fact that they are left out when retelling the history of the city. Ondaatje present the character’s stories to his readers in a fragmented, non-linear way which the reader has to unfold them while reading the novel. For example, the title of the novel (In the Skin of a Lion) it is a call for action, it implies responsibility for one's own story and for its narration in order to compensate for historical silences, and Alice (one of Ondaatje’s characters) states: "...Each person had their moment when they assumed the skins of wild animals, when they took responsibility for the story..." (Page 157). In the introduction of the novel, before the actual narration starts, Ondaatje also incorporates a framework story, that of a man telling a story to a girl, that opens and ends the novel and gives coherence to the many personal narratives: “This is a story a young girl gathers in a car during the early hours of the morning. She listens and asks questions as the vehicle travels through the darkness...” (Page 2).

Moreover, Ondaatje’s characters are also self-conscious of how the narration is organized, for instance, this comes into evidence on page 148 when one of the characters says: “...All these fragments of memory...so we can retreat from the gran story and stumble accidentally upon a luxury, one of those ground pools where we can sit still. Those moments, those few pages in a book we go back and forth...”. Besides this consciousness of being into a story, Ondaatje’s characters are also aware of their marginalized position in it. For example, the Nicholas Temelcoff is conscious of his anonymity and marginality and as regards this the following lines are written: "...He was anonymous..(..) He would never leave his name where his skill had been. He was one of those who have a fury or a sadness of only being described by someone else. A tarrer of roads, a house-builder, a painter, a thief –yet he was invisible to all around him..." (Page 199). He feels his story has never been legitimised. When Nicholas Temelcoff realises that “His own life was no longer a single story but part of a mural, which was a falling together of accomplices. Patrick saw the wondrous night web --all these fragments of a human order..”. (Page 145), as a consequence of this, he decides he should take responsibility for his story and compensate for omissions to appropriate his own life: "...he has been sewn into history. Now he will begin to tell stories..." (Page 149)

I think that In the Skin of a Lion includes a reflexive task on the part of the writer which implies a way of narrating the past with intense self-consciousness about the way it is done. So, rather than viewing history as a definable and conclusive object, historiographic metafiction sees engagements with history as being discursive, situational, and textual. This is what I think Ondaatje intended to do, he tried to problematize the nature of Canadian historical facts in his novel and at the same time, he tried to blur the line between history and fiction in order to present instead of an “official” history, several “stories” that represent the reality of some other Canadian citizens who were not taking into account in their status as such.

The different stories they present are characterised by their fragmentation, indeterminacy, silences, lack of closure and by giving voices to the ex-centric and long forgotten protagonists of the mainstream History. Probably, their aim is to recover the past so as to fill in the gaps and present a different Canada from the one we have been told about; that Canada of a white saxons descendants which represent a fair society devoid of problems like immigration and multiculturalism. They have taken the responsibility for telling the unsayable stories of Canadians citizens who were erased from the “official” history of their cities and country.