In the Skin of a Lion

In the Skin of a Lion Summary and Analysis of Book Two, Chapter 1, "Palace of Purification"

Palace of Purification

This chapter opens with images of men working in a tunnel that is being dynamited underneath Lake Ontario. It is another project of Commissioner Rowland Harris, to draw water from a mile and a half into the lake and then filter and purify it in a filtration building built in the style of a Byzantine palace.

Patrick moves an apartment in a Macedonian neighborhood, where he lives alone and works using his dynamiting skills on the tunnels. There is incredible risk working in the tunnel under the huge lake, especially for Patrick, who dynamites the earth to make the tunnel. If he makes a mistake, the entire lake could crash down on all the workers, instantly killing them. His co-workers are all immigrants from different countries, and they don’t speak to one another in the dark tunnels.

In his neighborhood, he also doesn’t speak the language of the people surrounding him. He had been asking at the local market for vetch for over a year, which he needed to feed the iguana that Clara left him. One day he learns the word for “iguana” and tries to tell the women at the market that is the reason he buys vetch all the time. The entire family who owns the market comes to speak with him to learn about this iguana, and they give him cake and surround him with friendship. Patrick cries tears of joy. The market-woman, Elena, gives him her own scarf from her neck to wipe his tears. The men embrace and kiss him each time he tells them his name. After this point, everyone in the neighborhood reaches out to him. They invite him to dinner with them at Kosta’s, the Macedonian bar where Nicholas and the nun went after their fall off the bridge together. Their language is still broken at the dinner, but despite the broken conversation, they all accept him into their fold.

Kosta invites him to a gathering at the Waterworks building, which is still at this point half-built. Here at night in clandestine meetings, various immigrant communities gather for secret political discussions and entertainment. Patrick watches a performance of puppets, where one big puppet is actually a human. The puppet show portrays the frustration of the immigrants when they are not able to communicate in the larger Canadian world outside their small neighborhoods, and how they are pushed and buffeted into jobs and places where they don't belong.

The puppet-human is brought before the police and, not knowing the language, doesn’t know what to do. He is assaulted by insults and others begin to pummel him. The puppet cannot speak and is buffeted around in the crowd. There are no sounds except the police grunts, and the puppet is “stamped a foot to try and bring out a language.” The other puppets cannot help. It finally collapses in frustration, defeat and sorrow, and repeatedly pounds a fist on the floor over and over at his lack of being able to speak and defend himself, pleading for help.

Patrick is so engrossed in the emotion of the scene, and so taken by the helplessness of the puppet’s situation, that he rushes to the stage to help the puppet, and he sees that it is a woman under the mask. He recognizes her as Alice Gull. She goes off-stage and Patrick goes to hunt backstage among dark crevices and dimly lit spaces for her. He finds her wiping off the makeup of her costume in the dark by candlelight. He goes to her and wordlessly takes the cloth from her hand and wipes the makeup from her eyes.

Patrick visits Alice and meets her nine-year-old daughter Hana, whose father, Cato, died working another dangerous labor job reserved only for immigrants. Patrick moves in with Alice, and she gets him work as a leather tanner. Alice brings him deeper into the Macedonian community. Through Hana, he meets Nicholas Temelcoff, now the owner of his own bakery.

We suddenly learn that Alice has died. It is slipped into one quiet sentence, “He wants everything of Alice to be here in this room as if she is not dead.” Patrick finds old photographs of Alice’s and goes to the library to piece together her history. Patrick learns about the nun that had fallen off the bridge, whose body was never found. He makes the connection after seeing an old rosary among Alice’s things, and then he asks Temelcoff, who confirms that Alice was the nun he saved all those years ago.


Ondaatje again gives detailed life to the manual labor that built the visions of the rich men: “All morning they slip in the wet clay unable to stand properly, pissing where they work, eating where someone else left shit. As the muckers move forward with their picks and shovels, the gunnite crew sprays a mixture of concrete and sand onto the walls, which would otherwise crumble after a few hours of exposure to air.” He turns the men into machines and mules, “The brain of a mule no more and no less knowledgeable than the body of man who dug into a clay wall in front of him.” The effect of such comparisons is to re-humanize the men, rather to dehumanize them. He accomplishes this by bringing us so closely into the worker’s senses and experiences as they work inside the tunnel, before making the comparison to machines and animals.

There is incredible danger to the work as well as discomfort: “And if they are digging incorrectly – just one degree up, burrowing too close to the weight of Lake Ontario during this made scheme by Commissioner Harris. . .? They have all imagined the water heaving in, shouldering them aside in a fast death.” As a dynamiter, Patrick takes the brunt of the risk. “Nobody else wants the claustrophobic uncertainty of this work, but for Patrick this part is the only ease in this terrible place where he feels banished from the world.” Here we learn that Patrick wants to be isolated and in a life so close to death. Ondaatje does not give us a reason for this; we are left to discern from his actions. It might be that he is still heart-broken over Clara, but also, as we learned in the first chapter, it is in his nature to be solitary and quiet.

In the scene when Patrick is at the market asking for vetch to feed his iguana, he tries to draw an iguana to explain why he needs the vetch every day. The moment when Patrick cries when the Macedonians finally understand him despite his lack of their language is deeply moving because it is symbolic. He has broken free of an isolation that he’s held all of his life, not just the surface isolation of not knowing the language. It is only after this moment that Patrick becomes social and agrees to go to an event that the immigrant communities hold at the half-built waterworks palace.

The gathering at the waterworks changes the course of Patrick’s life, because that is where he again meets Alice, the main actor/puppet on the stage. However, again, he is reminded of Clara, because without Clara, neither Alice nor Patrick would know each other. Patrick is with Alice and yet replays conversations he had with Clara in his mind. Alice also has a part of her with Clara, and says how much she loves Clara and that she “misses her. She made me sane for all those years.” It is a love affair with the specter of Clara present all the time.

Patrick’s isolation that he felt before the locals befriend him is now gone, and when Alice takes him deeper into the community to socialize with friends, Alice “speaks with her friends slipping out of English into Finnish or Macedonian.” She knows she “can be unconcerned with [Patrick’s] lack of language, that he is happy.” And so Patrick has come full circle with language. First he was trapped without it, using his lack of it to fuel his isolation, and now he is out of his isolation, and happy to communicate beyond language.

Alice’s death comes as a surprise to the reader. There is only one sentence declaring her death, and it is sandwiched between scenes of Patrick carrying Alice on his back and Hana then jumping on Alice's back, and all of them wrestling on the bed so that we don’t know if the scenes are memory or actual. Ondaatje plays with this uncertain reality on purpose, mixing up time and memory so that we feel Alice is alive in Patrick's heart just as Patrick feels it. This is part of Ondaatje's post-modern collage and stream-of-consciousness style, to create a story that is absorbed through dream-like images, much as memory works, rather than a linear construction with exposition.