In the Skin of a Lion

Introduction

In the Skin of a Lion is a novel by Canadian–Sri Lankan writer Michael Ondaatje. It was first published in 1987 by McClelland and Stewart. The novel fictionalises the lives of the immigrants whose contributions to building Toronto in the early 1900s never became part of the city's official history. Ondaatje illuminates the investment of these settlers in Canada, through their labour, while remaining "outsiders" to mainstream society. In the Skin of a Lion is thus an exposé of the migrant condition: "It is a novel about the wearing and the removal of masks; the shedding of skin, the transformations and translations of identity."[1] lt was nominated for the Governor General's Award for English Language Fiction in 1987. Ondaatje's later and more famous novel The English Patient is, in part, a sequel to In the Skin of a Lion, continuing the characters of Hana and Caravaggio, as well as revealing the fate of this novel's main character, Patrick Lewis.

An important aspect of the novel is its depiction of Toronto in the 1930s. Ondaatje spent many months in the archives of the City of Toronto and newspapers of the era. Prominence is given to the construction of Toronto landmarks, such as the Prince Edward Viaduct, commonly known as the Bloor Street Viaduct, and the R. C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, and focuses on the lives of the immigrant workers. The plot incorporates a number of true stories of the time, such as the fall of a nun from a bridge, the disappearance of Ambrose Small, the political suppression of Police Chief Draper, and the murder of labour union organizers Rosvall and Voutilainen.

In a minor section of the novel, Patrick Lewis visits Paris, Ontario in which Ondaatje describes various parts of the town including: Broadway Street, Wheelers Needleworks, Medusa, Paris Plains, just north of the town, the Arlington hotel, and Paris Public Library.

The structure of the novel may be described as postmodern in that Ondaatje uses many voices, images, and re-organizes time to tell the stories. Thematically, the book may be categorized as post-colonial with its focus on immigrants and their native cultures and languages.

The novel's title is a line from The Epic of Gilgamesh following the death of Enkidu, Tablet VIII, generally translated as "I let a filthy mat of hair grow over my body, and donned the skin of a lion and roamed the wilderness."


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