Skin Of A Lion By Ondaatje “Let me now re-emphasise the extreme looseness of the structure of all objects” How Ondaatje makes use of “loosness” in the novel. In “In The Skin Of A Lion” by Michael Ondaatje, “the extreme looseness of the structure of all objects” is carried into the themes, characters and into the nature of the novel itself. Ondaatje uses a “looseness” in the style of the novel – post modernism, and “looseness of structure” in the way that people are able to stretch and expand their boundaries: transform or mask themselves into someone not typical of their social group. This novel was written in the late 1980s and is classified as a post-modern work. Essentially, “In The Skin Of A Lion” has many traits of a post-modern novel, it deals with chaos and order, has multi-layered interpretations, provokes an ambiguous and mixed reaction from the reader, and has varied approaches to the conventional storyline; beginning, exposition, and closure.
There are liberties taken with the time structure of the narrative. The story itself is like a “mural, [the] falling together of accomplices.” Ondaatje tells of ordinary people whos stories interlock and intersect, with many “fragments of human order”. Ondaatje does not tell the stories loosely and scattered with no real purpose in mind, he employs recurring images and motifs, for e.g. moths and insects, feldspar. This is to provide continuity and relevance, and helps him to give a view on the untold history of Toronto. An emphasis is placed on the story that comes from different viewpoints and angles – the “chaos”, and then structures it so that its order of history is “very faint, very human” as opposed to official histories.
It takes every single word from the first page to the last, in order to make sense of the meanings, which “travel languorously like messages in a bottle”. The novels storyline is not linear, it slides from one character to the next, then slips and loses itself in the time that it created, “five years earlier, or ten years into the future..” The prologue only makes sense once the end is reached, and the bits in between all mingle and melt into one another until most of the completed narrative is achieved. In fact, it takes a few good readings to pick up the events and stitch them together to create order, and only then are the meanings apparent. “Meander if you want to get to town”. Even when the book is finished, there is no distinct closure and finality of the narrative; the story itself is in the process of being told.
“This is a story a young girl gathers in a car..”, and in that same way, it tells of how that car trip started, so the tale backs up on itself. The novel constantly brings attention that it itself is a work of fiction. There are constant references to art, music, drama, film, photography, and literature, as well as devices used “You reach people through metaphor”. It implies that it is a creation, “Only the best art can order the chaotic tumble of events.” and even “The first sentence of every novel should be..”. Authors, painters, singers and actors all feature highly in a book about peoples creation of their lives and history. Ondaatjes language in the novel borders on poetry. Imagery, figurative language and emotive words abound whenever he is being descriptive, or making a point.
The second paragraph at the beginning of “Caravaggio”, “by noon [..] onto the blue metal”, has a certain rhythm in the words and sentences, “Taking an innocent step/He would fall through the air and die”, “joined by a rope – one on each slope”, that somewhat mirrors lines in poetry. Poetic devices are in the scene of the puppet-show. Similes “Machine locked in habit”, economic use of words”exhausted statuary”, and repetition “There. There. There” effectively convey a vivid image to the reader. There is not just flexibility in the structure of the novel and how it is written, it is also carried into themes. One of the issues deals with the looseness of boundaries, especially the boundaries of stereotype and class, “Gestures, and work and bloodline are the only currency”.
This attitude is one that Ondaatje aims to challenge in the novel. Boundaries could be physical, e.g. the bridge with the “lanterns tracing outlines”. This kind is symbolical, the nun loses the boundaries and falls over into a new existence. She takes on a new character and her past life is obliterated, just by having stretched her boundaries. Boundaries could be somewhat physical, in the mental sense. When Patrick sees the loggers skate across ice holding fires, “his mind raced ahead of his body.” i.e.
he has been exposed to a realisation outside of his world. Language and people often have barriers to cross, they “br[oke] through [their] chrysalis into language” and by doing so, the structures of their world changes. Patrick finally breaks through his isolation when he reaches out to communicate with Elena and the Macedonians. He gained new friends, was admired and had to learn a new culture. In this way Ondaatje expresses how life can change from extreme to extreme, just by stretching and expanding boundaries.
There is an insinuation throughout the book of the superficiality of constraints. In many examples through the book, Ondaatje lets us see how the “extreme looseness” is carried into role playing. Alice is a mother, a political activist, a lover, and an actress, all at once, and yet is the same being. The dyers “leapt into different colours as if into different countries”, but the colour was disrobed from them in a matter of minutes. Of course, the smell has permeated their body eternally, perhaps symbolising that once a role is played, it remains with you forever. When first becoming a searcher, the experience remained with Patrick, “a searcher gazing into the darkness of his own country”, searching for how to relate to the people around him and what his place was in his country.
So there is the significance of how loose boundaries and social casting can be, and how life can oscillate from extreme to extreme. Structures such as bridges and waterways also have a “loose” quality, in that its significance is past its physical state. In many instances in this novel, Toronto infrastructure is symbolic of the work achieved by the builders, and how it exists because of the sacrifice of immigrant workers. “In The Skin Of A Lion” is not just a book based on “looseness”. Although it creates looseness by its poetic devices, the non-linear time structure and the post-modern nature of the novel, there is nothing loose about Ondaatje’s story-telling. There are constant ties and recurrent images in the narrative, and even if the sequence of the events are not in chronological order, there is no doubt that every significant event has been covered and cross-referenced. All these literary devices contribute to the effect of looseness in the way the novel is written.
This is reflective of the themes, in that history’s interpretation can be loosened. There is “extreme looseness” in the meaning of events to the people who built Toronto in comparison to the official histories, and the symbolic natures of the “structure of all objects” in the novel.