The story, as suggested by the epigram

The Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, once said, “loneliness does not come from having no people around you, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to you.” The fundamental root of isolation that is experienced by an individual or within societal groups may precipitate from a lack of communication, resulting in uncertainty. Yet, therefore, connection and certainty may be simultaneously restored through verbal and non-verbal communication and through the relationships which are later, eventually formed. In the Skin of a Lion, written by Michael Ondaatje in 1987, reshapes history by revealing the dislocated and forgotten lives of migrants, who significantly contributed in the building of Toronto. The novel foregrounds the part played by the workers and immigrants of Toronto, seeking to give voice to the voiceless and marginalised members of the society, who created an active force in making Toronto what it is today, yet were ignored in historical accounts. The author vastly explores the complex issues of isolation and uncertainty within the immigrants, through the migrant experiences and their individual histories, and displays how connection can be later reinstated, followed by certainty in their identity and their lives. Ondaatje structures the novel in a way that reveals the nature of isolation and connection and certainty and uncertainty, and enables the audience to realise each person’s position in a larger story, as suggested by the epigram in the beginning of the book, “never again will a story told as though it were the only one”. Ondaatje’s technique of putting epigrams to his works enables his readers to unravel the hidden links to the multi-layered, multi-voiced tales. Just as it does play within the novel, the passing of a skin of a lion bestows responsibility for the story to each new character, offering each a moment of certainty and connection. 

Patrick, as a trans-cultural immigrant, strives to understand his foreign social environment, however struggles from isolation due to his inability to communicate. Since the beginning of the novel, isolation is depicted within the lives of Patrick and his father Hazen Lewis, who was born into an isolated land or “a region which did not appear on a map until 1910” though “the land had been homestead since 1810”. Hazen’s silence, lack of communication and failure to “teach his son anything, no legend, no base of theory” creates Patrick’s independent and solitary attitude, allowing him to become an observer. However, just as his father “learned important things, the way children learn from watching how adults angle a hat or approach a strange dog”, Patrick likewise does the same and “absorbs everything from a distance”. Towards the end of the chapter Little Seeds, Patrick is drawn by sparks of light, or ‘seeds’ which is a metaphorical representation of title, to a group of skaters. Although Patrick longs to join them and “hold their hands”, he refuses, depicting his isolation and inability to fit in, foreshadowing his future actions and solitary life whilst creating an identity founded on uncertainty. Patrick does not realise his sense of worth and is uncertain about his place within the society, emerged from his lack of communication. Uncertainty is further explored when Ondaatje gives comprehensive life to the manual labour of the workers, “all morning they slip in the wet clay unable to stand properly, pissing while they work…few hours of exposure to air.” He equates men with “the brain of a mule”, and uses dehumanising language, in an attempt to characterise the uncertainty in their identity, and lack of position and worth in the society. The author fulfils this by letting the readers closely experience the worker’s senses and experiences as they work inside the tunnel. Uncertainty and isolation is also existent within their work as Ondaatje describes the incredible danger to the work as well as discomfort and how “nobody else wants the claustrophobic uncertainty of his work, but for Patrick this part is the only ease in this terrible place where he feels banished from the world.” Here, we understand that Patrick wishes to be isolated in a life so close to death, which could be due to his solitary and quiet nature, emerged from the absence of communication since he was a child. However, Patrick’s isolation that he faced gradually disappeared when the locals befriend him. The deeply touching scene where Patrick cries when the Macedonians finally understand him, is symbolic as he is broken free on an isolation that he’s carried throughout his life, not just the surface isolation of not knowing the language. He later attends social gatherings and Alice takes him deeper to socialise with friends and she knows she “can be concerned with Patrick’s lack of language, that he is happy”. Therefore, Patrick has come full circle with language, and is exempt from isolation and communicates beyond language. When Patrick reunites with Clara, we learn that companionship is what Patrick lacked in his life since his childhood, as shown by his detached relationship with his father. Likewise, Nicholas and Patrick overcomes the disabling and isolating feature of lack of language to find friendship. In Ondaatje’s accounts of Patrick’s relationships, he indicates the significance of the need of being part of a group. Instead of being the onlooker and living in isolation, Patrick becomes a part of the community he lives in. Therefore, one can say that uncertainty and isolation can be replaced by connection and certainty through communication and relationships formed with others, enabling them to secure for themselves a place in the society whilst providing themselves with a sense of worth. 

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Ondaatje demonstrates the stories of each character to the audience in a fragmented, non-linear structure which the reader must unfold. Barbara Leckie briefly yet clearly expresses that “Ondaatje’s use of history, his stress on multi-voiced narratives spoken from unusual locations, and his self-consciousness about different art forms are indicative of the time during which he has written”. The novel’s title depicts that it is a call for action for taking responsibility for one’s own story and for its narration in order to make amends for historical silences, as Alice states, “each person had their moment when they assumed that they had the skins of wild animals, when they took responsibility for the story.” Patrick recognises and understands his own self and the country only after he forms his relationship with Alice who teaches him about he lives of the labourers: “and all of his life, Patrick had been oblivious to it, a searcher gazing into the darkness of his own country”. With his willingness and inspiration of political activism of Alice, Patrick battles for the acknowledgement of the marginalised people, who suffer from historical isolation, and uncertainty due to their unofficial position in history. The intertextual reference of the Epic of Gilgamesh symbolises that he must conceal himself in a ‘different skin’ in order to be able to blend into their surroundings. To become a part of society and to overcome cultural isolation, the immigrants need to adopt the skin of Toronto. The Canadian academic Linda Hutcheon states in a different context that, “the intertextual parody of historiographic metafiction enacts, in a way, the views of certain contemporary historiographies: it offers a sense of the presence of the past, but a past that can be known only from its texts, its traces—be they literary or historical”. The intertextual references present a blending of the mythical, historical and fictional in the invention of identity gained by overcoming isolation. Ondaatje uses elliptical movements, from one time frame to another, so the reader may inquire as to the perception of the different ways in which isolation and uncertainty can be portrayed from various angles, as opposed to the solitary linear description presented by the author. The author conveys this through characterisation and describing the lives of different characters in a non-linear structure, which foreshadows a consciousness of what will happen and how the threads of different people’s lives cross over. In addition, the juxtaposition of each man’s isolated life also suggests the possibility of their connecting later. In structuring this multidimensional story line, Ondaatje eliminates the reader’s tendency to base the story off of the linear perspective of one character by portraying the main character’s nugatory and worthless existence, which further explores the uncertainty that exists within the characters themselves. Eradicating the linear perspective concept, the author allows the cubist conditions of delineating a three-dimensional story contrived from the perspectives of a multitude of characters to unfold. This cubistic approach also enables the reader to make meaning of the text on their own, by breaking the illusion of reality and disrupting the normal reading process, rather than simply allowing the reader to receive it. The novel is written in third-person view to integrate the lives and stories of many, allowing the author to be omniscient and to see and understand all elements and characters in the story, and to show the story from more than one set of eyes. Ondaatje therefore presents a sweeping canvas than a single, narrow view, which can be related back to his cubistic approach.

In conclusion, Ondaatje demonstrates that it is only through retelling and connecting the stories together that personal histories may seize the ‘official’ histories. Each character reveals a part of his or her life that reshapes and re-evaluates history, whilst obliterating their historical isolation. Although isolation and uncertainty were existent throughout the novel, Ondaatje further structures it in a way that celebrates connection and the certainty that comes from connecting. By drawing attention to the stories of individual immigrants of Toronto in the early twentieth century, Ondaatje shows the significance of different individuals, by describing the migrant experiences, to the history of the modernisation of the city. The single stories of people become a part of a “mural, which was a falling together of accomplices…fragments of a human order”. Ondaatje becomes the voice to the labourers who arrives at a new country, where they lived insecure lives founded on uncertainty and became the unrecognised heroes of modernity.

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