, Research Paper
Historical Obliviousness in Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion
Graciela Moreira Slepoy, Postgraduate Student, Laval University, Canada
This web essay is based upon a paper the author wrote for Professor Neil Bissoondath’s “Postcolonial Literature II”
[ANG-64699A], Laval University.
Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion narrates the forgotten stories of those who contributed to the building of the city
Toronto, particularly immigrants and marginal individuals. In the very first page of the novel, Ondaatje stresses the concern with
personal narratives and the act of storytelling: “This is the story a young girl gathers in a car during the early hours of the morning
[...] She listens to the man as he picks up and brings together various corners of the story…” (4). Similar to Crossing the River,
there is 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. Patrick has an audience at two narrative levels, namely, Hanna at the textual level and the reader at the
extra textual one. The reader is the recipient of the macro story, which is Patrick’s act of storytelling, as well as of the micro
stories contained in it.
Like Phillips’ novel, Ondaatje’s has a circular quality that makes stories transcend time and space; In the Skin of the Lion ends
where it starts. The structure of the novel resembles a Chinese box since a series of interrelated stories form concentric circles,
all of which converge in Patrick’s act of telling a story to Hanna.
He saw himself gazing at so many stories [...] He saw the interactions, saw how each one of them was carried by
the strength of something more than themselves [...] 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
Similar to Caryl Phillips’ Crossing the River, there is a tension between History and “her/his-stories” in Ondaatje’s novel.
However instead of employing historical contexts to create the tension, Ondaatje makes subtle but explicit comments on
historical oblivion to individuals and their stories. History is implicitly considered as a master narrative that allows no space to
articulate local narratives and to account for the richness, variety and complexity of human experience. To counterbalance the
omissions and partiality of the historical master narrative, the alternative Ondaatje proposes is to privilege and celebrate a
plurality of private and local narratives that give voice to the forgotten of History. Caravaggio, for example, is sadly aware of his
being left out of the History of the city he has helped to build. Like Nicholas Temelcoff, he is painfully conscious of his
anonymity and marginality: “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” (199). His story has never been legitimised.
When Nicholas Temelcoff realises “how he has been sewn into history. [He decides] he will begin to tell stories” (149) to
appropriate his own life. As the title of the novel indicates, to take responsibility for one’s own story and for its narration is a
way of legitimising and appropriating one’s life in order to compensate for historical omissions. Alice’s explanation of the
meaning of the title emphasises the importance of telling personal stories: “Each person had their moment when they assumed
the skins of wild animals, when they took responsibility for the story” (157).
History, in this novel, is associated with anonymity and passivity; on the other hand, personal narratives as well as the act of
telling them entail a creative, fluid, restorative and life-enhancing process. History does not reflect the process of its
construction, the final product is what counts; to reflect the process of recording History would encompasses the risk of
exposing its biased nature and consequently ruining its illusory objectivity and totality. Patrick’s narrative, on the other hand,
reflects the process of its construction; Patrick shows the reader how he builds his story out of bits and pieces of memories. In
fact, Patrick Lewes’ attempt at discovering Clara’s and Alice’s past parallels the reader’s effort at understanding the fictional
cosmos. Clara’s past is a mystery with which be becomes obsessed, “Patrick feels he knows nothing of most of Clara’s life. He
keeps finding and losing parts of her, as if opening a drawer to discover another mask” (79). Like Clara, Alice “refused to
speak of the past. Even her stories about Hana’s father, though intricate, gave nothing away of herself. She was never
self-centred in her mythologies” (137). Patrick’s effort at trying to elucidate Clara’s and Alice’s mysterious past is actually an
attempt at coming to terms with his own story since the stories of these two women are intricately interwoven with his own. By
the end of the book, which actually is the beginning, Patrick is ready to take responsibility for his own story. This is suggested
by his saying “Lights” (244) meaning that, as Alice one explained to him, it is his turn to get on the stage and wear the skin of a
lion, i.e., tell his own story.
In the Skin of a Lion creates an intimate space where the silenced, marginal and ex-centric author and tell their own stories.
Ondaatje’s characters comprise a polyphony of voices; even if not all the characters are narrators of their own stories, the
reader gets to know their perspectives. He/she has access to the psychic and spiritual life of most of them mainly through
Patrick Lewe’s story and through a third person narrator. The stories are fragmented and somehow indeterminate. There are
many silences and absences that call for an active participation on the part of the reader who tries to put the pieces of the puzzle
together. As in Phillips’ novel, the privileging of fragmented plural perspectives is an effort to avoid the closure and totalisation
that characterise master narratives and celebrate the openness and heterogeneity of human experienc