Bristling with intelligence and shimmering with romance, this novel tests the boundary between history and myth. Patrick Lewis arrives in Toronto in the s . Bristling with intelligence and shimmering with romance, this novel tests the boundary between history and myth. Patrick Lewis arrives in Toronto in the. Anne Enright first read Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion as a creative writing student. Beautiful and highly contagious, it seems to do.
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T here are certain books that should be taken away from young writers; that should be prised out of their clutching fingers and locked away until they are all grown up and ready to read them without being smitten. At the very least, they should have “Don’t try this on your own typewriter” printed in bold across the front.
In the Skin of a Lion is nichael of things that Michael Ondaatje can do, but that you probably can’t do, or can’t do yet. It is a highly contagious book. It seems to do impossible things. A nun is blown off an unfinished bridge in Toronto, one night in the early 20th century. She is caught by a construction worker who brings her to safety. They go to a deserted restaurant, where he drinks and falls asleep. When he wakes, she is gone. He gets a doctor to set his dislocated shoulder, and tells no one that she is not dead.
The worker is Nicholas Temelcoff, a daredevil who walks to the edge of the bridge and “steps into the clear air” leaving nothing to see but “the fizzing rope, a quick slither”. He dangles below the top level, working with equal ease in darkness or in fog. No lf is made of the size of her wimple or the ballooning of her skirts, but it must be her clothes that catch the wind.
I have reread this section of In the Skin of a Lion many times over the years. I turn to it for solace, and to see how it is done, and to question the role of miracle, coincidence and accident in whatever book I am writing at the time.
These are difficult, almost occult forces; dangerous to the act of fiction. So it is a bad influence: Looking at it now, I can see – sort of – how he does it; interweaving various past tenses with the heroic present of Nicholas labouring on the bridge. There is the archived, historical past of the Prince Edward Viaduct, the human past loon Nicholas’s journey from Macedonia to North America, and the immediate past of the nun’s fall.
Each of these functions as a single note in the major chord that is the “worker-hero” Nicholas Temelcoff. After the drop, the narrative pushes through to the restaurant, breaking into an optimistic present tense as she lin off into the dawn. The scene has some of the hypnagogic strangeness of all false falls: It is terribly moving. Like Gloucester flinging himself off a cliff that isn’t there, on his way to Dover, the effect of it is hard to describe, although the mechanics seem quite clear.
My first, paperback, edition of this book disappeared long ago, the hardback I bought in a bargain basement got lost in my attempts to settle down and write about wkin here.
The most recent replacement looks much too slight to contain the book I read in my 20s – and in fact it does read long, the prose is delicious and slow.
In Skin of a Lion
I don’t know if I can boast of reading it as soon as it was published, in the spring ofthough when I think of the book I also think of that time of my if I was on the creative writing course, and by the spring term I was living almost entirely by night, watching the other lights go out and come back on, sometime before dawn.
I could just about see one other girl, rocking endlessly in front of a thhe Irish tricolour, listening to “A Nation Once Again” on a loop.
I was worried about her. I thought she might kill herself. I would have found her door and knocked on it, if it hadn’t been for the damn flag. Instead I sat there, wondering how to turn myself into “a writer”, thinking that dying might be some kind of short cut; much easier, certainly, than writing an actual book.
So many words, and none of them right.
Ondaatje must have given me some answers, because my first novel – written after I left UEA – opens with a character who might have appeared in his, but did not. Mine was a bridge builder in Canada, who hanged himself from the end of the uncompleted span. I had no compunction about this borrowing at the time, though I now imchael it gauche and odd.
Mostly, I am sad that my character was dead – what a way to begin. He refused to stay dead, however, and appeared as a failed angel at my heroine’s door.
In the Skin of a Lion: Michael Ondaatje: Bloomsbury Paperbacks
At the time, I thought he was a romantic figure; now I think of this revenant as some version of myself that I tried to kill, but could not, in the spring of If writing is being haunted by your own ghost, then In the Skin of a Lion is haunted by the visionaries and builders of the fiction that is the modern city.
In the water works that Commissioner Harris embarks upon after the bridge is completed, “The brass railings curved up three oc like an immaculate fiction. The hero of the book is Patrick Lewis, an explosives expert who nurses a broken heart among the immigrant Macedonians and Finns.
At tje end of the novel, he confronts Harris, and a struggle that seemed to be between labour and capital turns out, in fact, to be between worker and dreamer; false opposites, who are incapable micbael destroying each other after all. Ondaatje is much praised for the way he “decentres” history, but it was not this that held me, 20 years ago; it was the way he “decentres” sexual relations.
Patrick becomes involved with two women, each of whom is involved with another man. Clara Dickens liob the lover of the disappeared millionaire Ambrose Small. Small is a real historical character, and Cato shares the same death as the real Finnish union men Rosvall and Voutilainen. So the women are sleeping with history, and Patrick sleeps with the women. The real lover is elsewhere and, for reasons I cannot explain, this sense of being off-stage, off-centre, this feeling that love is something stolen or borrowed, still makes the erotics of the book fascinating to me.
It works on that same inaccessible part of my brain as the nun’s plummet from the uncompleted bridge. The characters in this book are always falling asleep on each other. This is not about fidelity or infidelity so much as about the impossibility of knowing someone, let alone owning them – though it is possible to love them, all the same. You must make it human. It is as if the writer knows that a book, ostensibly about politics, is in fact about something else.
Ondaatje both owns and moves beyond his own great bad influence here, another highly contagious writer, John Berger.
It was rereading Berger’s G that allowed me back into this book. I lioh I might have found the trick of it luon you can see how Berger uses the heroic present of the workers’ struggle, and the eternal present of the erotic, to make the ideological feel somehow absolute. Once I found Berger oof Ondaatje’s work, I started finding him all over the place. He is the presiding genius of a kind of clear-eyed male fiction I never quite believe, being too untroubled and in charge of history – with its beautiful poverty and its beautiful sex and its beautiful deaths from cholera.
I do believe Ondaatje, however, despite the way his characters fall so beautifully asleep, because he is not in thrall to his own talent. In the Skin of a Lion constantly feels for the edges of things. It is all about the unknown.
The structure of the book is sometimes described as “postmodern” – I don’t know why, it seems entirely natural and chronological to me. This is a bad sign. It is a sign of how deeply I have absorbed this book.
It makes me think you can progress through time like a poet. It makes me think you can do whatever the hell you like with time. I should scrawl it across the front cover, “Don’t try this on your own typewriter”, though oof is ohdaatje computer, 20 years on.
I still love the book, with a passion. I love it even though it is so bad for me. I’d be better off looking at the less beautiful work of someone like Pat Barker, who writes about war, prostitution and poverty without resorting to the poetic – who makes radical, indeed, the o between poetry and history.
Maybe, that is, I should write about the girl rocking all night under the Irish tricolour and listening to her rebel songs. But I am still drawn to the other lights, that come on for half an hour in the middle of the night, and then switch off.
I am still, like Muchael, drawn to those who sleep. Topics Michael Ondaatje Rereading. Fiction Creative writing reviews.