In the Skin of a Lion

In the Skin of a Lion Summary and Analysis of Book One, Chapter 2, “The Bridge”

The Bridge

This chapter is about the building of the of the Bloor Street Viaduct, formally named the Prince Edward Viaduct, which links eastern Toronto with the center of the city and carries traffic, water and electricity across the Don Valley. The year is 1918. Ondaatje begins the description of the building of the bridge with the men who pour tar, starting out in trucks well before dawn. His narration moves close to the men and then far away from them, describing photographs of the building of the bridge and how the workers look like nothing more than extensions of hammers and equipment. Then the electrical men come to put the lights on it, and the bridge is completed.

During the opening ceremonies a cyclist breaks away from the public gathered behind police barriers. He is thought to be the first person over the bridge, but the narrator tells us that he was “not the first.” The previous midnight, the workers who built the bridge pushed away officials who guarded the bridge and walked with candles – their tribute to the other workers who died building the bridge – across the whole length of it.

Next is the description of the tarring of the roads that are linked by the bridge, Bloor Street and Danforth Avenue, which were just dirt roads when the bridge was built. In the middle of the description of how men must kneel over wooden block irons to flatten the tar there is a sentence-long paragraph in italics: “Hey, Caravaggio!” This is the first brief introduction of the character Caravaggio. We find out through context that the voice that shouted for Caravaggio is a foreman and there is a flash forward: “When Caravaggio quits a year later, he will cut the thongs with a fish knife and fling the blocks in the half-dry tar.” Here we get a taste of Caravaggio’s temper and his fate a year later.

Rowland Harris, the Commissioner of Public Works, is introduced in this chapter. He is the man with the vision for the bridge and, as we will see later, the waterworks. Harris drives to the edge of the bridge often in the night with the architect Pomphrey, to look at the half-built bridge. One very windy night in April 1917, Harris and Pomphrey see five nuns walking on the bridge. They must have been dropped off by the bus and gotten lost in the dark. The wind picks up and the nuns are pushed against the cement mixers. The night workers hold onto the nuns, but one nun is jerked sideways and falls off the edge of the bridge.

We are led to believe that the nun fell off the bridge and died, but in the next section, we learn that a man in “mid-air” on the second tier of the bridge sees her falling figure and reaches out for her. The weight of her fall rips his arm out of its socket, but he “found himself a moment later holding the figure against him dearly.” This is our first introduction to Nicholas Temelcoff. He is hanging with the nun in mid-air and they have to swing until they reach the lower-deck level of the bridge. The other nuns are still clinging to the workers above and saying that the one who fell had a scar on her nose and “was always unlucky.” Nicholas and the nun make it to the street and walk by the Commissioner’s car while his chauffeur sleeps, indicating that no one on the bridge sees them walk off.

He walks with the nun to Ohrida Lake Restaurant, where he drinks shots of brandy to still the pain in his arm. There is a parrot in the bar named Alicia. The nun uses her veil to tie up Nicholas’ injured arm, and he falls asleep to discover that she has left black material that she has cut away from her habit, so that her habit is now a black skirt, and she has walked away and left the bar, but he “knows he will find her.”

Nicholas Temelcoff is unique and indispensable in building the bridge. He is “famous on the bridge, a daredevil.” He will do work that no one else will do, such as hanging from ropes and turning a bolt with a two-foot long wrench with the free-falling weight of his body. While other workers are paid forty cents, he is paid a dollar, $1.25 for night work. Nicholas cannot speak English well, and the Commissioner notices him because he does such extraordinarily difficult work. Yet Harris mistakes his quietness for being a “fanatic” about his work.

The lack of language is emphasized in Nicholas Temelcoff’s life in North America, but before he came to Canada, “it was a spell of language that brought Nicholas” to North America: a man from his Macedonian village, Daniel Stoyanoff, had come to Canada for a short time and then come back rich enough to buy a farm. He had lost an arm in an accident working in a meat factory in Canada and received compensation for it. He took the compensation, which was big when converted to Macedonian money, and bought a farm and then “bored everyone in the village with his tall tales. . . of his sojourner’s story of Upper America.” He morphed his story to tell children that he had actually lost both arms, but he was living with a tailor in America who sewed one arm back on, while the other one was stolen by a dog.

We learn Nicholas’ history, that he left Macedonia to come to Canada after the war in the Balkans burned his village. After a difficult boat journey and entering the country without a passport, he enrolled in school because he knew he needed to learn the language. He worked at a bakery from two in the morning until 8:30, when he went to school. He was twenty-six years old while children in the class were ten years old. Here he picked up the beginnings of the English language. The chapter then describes immigrant communities such as Nicholas’, where the Macedonians, Greeks, and Finns would learn English by going to the theater over and over and repeating the lines after the actors, which “infuriated the actors.” But once when an actor dropped dead during a performance, a Sicilian butcher from the audience jumped on stage and took over the performance, knowing the lines and blocking, so that money did not have to be refunded. Now, “for Nicholas language is much more difficult than what he does in space.” He practices his English by singing song lyrics aloud to the pipes while he works on the bridge suspended in mid-air.


The chapter begins with images and hardly any exposition: “A truck carries fire. . .”; “The light begins to come out of the earth”; “hot tar spitting onto the back of a neck or an ear”; “A man is an extension of hammer, drill, flame”; “. . . black rivers of tar in their trousers, boots, and caps”; “Drill smoke in his hair”; “A cap falls into the valley, gloves are buried in stone dust.” The bridge is described as “[l]ounging in mid-air.” The effect of such vivid images, one after the other, is to bring us close to the sensory experience of the bridge-building, to take us close into what the men who built it saw, smelled and felt. Instead of the usual description of a distant authorial voice describing the building of the bridge from a mediated distance, we get vivid sensory details as if we are there, in keeping with Ondaatje’s intent to re-create experience in a collage of senses. Ondaatje anthropomorphizes the bridge as a “lounging” human, while he mechanizes humans as extensions of machines, continuing to work even as tar singes their skin, as they destroy their clothing and lose caps and gloves.

When we are told that the workers were the first to cross the finished bridge as a tribute to their friends who died in the building of the bridge, the mass of candles at night moving over the bridge is described as “a net of summer insects over the valley.” This image invokes the images in the last chapter of the fireflies that Patrick sees over the field, that turn out not to be fireflies but foreign men. This motif of fragments of light representing longing and emotion will continue throughout the novel.

The technique of flash forwards will be used throughout the novel, and in this chapter we see the first uses: the revelation of Caravaggio quitting his job as a tar layer “a year later” than the present action is told, and later in the chapter, after we have been introduced to and followed Nicholas Temelcoff in the building of the bridge, we get a flash forward that “[i]n a year he will open up a bakery with the money he has saved.” These flash forwards indicate that these characters will come back later in the novel, and the flash forwards build hope and suspense in the story.

The bridge continues to be anthropomorphized in this chapter. It is described as Commissioner Harris’ “first child as head of Public Works.” Then after Harris sees the nun falls off the bridge, the bridge “was [Harris’] first child and it had already become a murderer.” From the innocence of a child to the savagery of a murderer – the power of this bridge is foretold through its anthropomorphism. Yet there is also a callous irony in Harris's perspective. The bridge had already murdered many workers, as evidenced by the vigil held before the bridge's opening. But not until the bridge slayed the nun did it become, to Harris, an instrument of death.

After Nicholas and the nun are introduced, the chapter moves back and forth in time. It weaves information on Nicholas Temelcoff’s present-day indispensability in building the bridge and then goes back to the nun and Nicholas sitting in the bar after they have walked off the bridge, with Nicholas injured and the nun in shock. Then we go back to Nicholas and his background and story of immigration, and then back to the bar and the nun again, then we go to the story of Nicholas learning English. Then, again, we go back to the bar and the nun, who cannot understand him, since he speaks in his own language. However, it becomes clear they understand each other anyway, because of what they have been through together – this is another illustration of the theme of communication beyond language. The effect of moving back and forth between time frames and scenes is to contrast Nicholas’ tribulations as an immigrant without language with the subtle and exquisite communication that he has with the nun despite their lack of shared language.