In the Skin of a Lion

In the Skin of a Lion Characters Who Continue to Live After a Novel is Finished

Michael Ondaatje has said that he feels his characters always continue to live after he has completed a novel. He said this is why he always leaves his endings open and not fully tied up. He also starts a novel by seeing a scene in his mind's eye of a character doing something - such as a boy watching loggers or a man working on a bridge - and then he writes in order to figure out who that person is, why they are doing a certain activity, and where it will lead. Both in beginning and ending a novel, his characters' lives go on, and have gone on, before the writer comes to them. He is only capturing a snippet of them.

The place where this is most evident in Ondaatje’s work is with the characters Caravaggio and Hana, who appear in In the Skin of a Lion, and then continue their lives, becoming two of the main characters in The English Patient. Patrick, the protagonist of In the Skin of a Lion, and Clara also have minor roles in The English Patient. They appear through Hana's and Caravaggio's thoughts and memories, and Clara and Hana write letters to each other during the course of the story in The English Patient.

It is because of Patrick’s friendship with Caravaggio, after they met in prison in In The Skin of Lion, that Caravaggio develops his fatherly relationship with Hana, and this is the sole reason he comes to the villa in The English Patient -- to find Hana.

Patrick's death, which we learn about in the English Patient, is the reason that Hana becomes so dedicated to taking care of Almasy, or the Patient, because Patrick died of burns in World War II when Hana was also in the war, but not close enough to help him. And so she helps the English patient instead, as if she could turn back time and help Patrick survive.

We learn more about Patrick and Caravaggio’s friendship in The English Patient, when Caravaggio says about Patrick, “Find him a woman in distress and he was lost.” And Hana remembers how Patrick used to joke about Caravaggio’s meticulous shaving and parted hair, which has now softened and he is always unshaven. In the Skin of a Lion ends with Hana driving with Patrick to meet Clara up north of Toronto for the first time, and we learn in the The English Patient that Hana and Patrick then left Toronto to live with Clara on the northern lakes, the three of them living there together for two years before Patrick and Hana “forsook” Clara for the war.

There is a passage in In the Skin of a Lion, where Ondaatje describes his phenomenon of his characters living on beyond a novel: "Patrick had the photograph from Hana's suitcase in his pocket. In books he had read, even those romances he swallowed during childhood, Patrick never believed that characters lived only on the page. They altered when the author's eye was somewhere else. Outside the plot there was a great darkness, but there would of course be daylight elsewhere on earth. Each character had his own time zone, his own lamp. . ."

At the end of The English Patient, Ondaatje writes about Hana, “She is woman I don’t know well enough to hold in my wing, if writers have wings, to harbour for the rest of my life,” indicating that Hana, again, lives on, beyond In The Skin of Lion and beyond The English Patient.