Given the pervasiveness and intensity of violence in Michael Ondaatje’s novel, “In the Skin of a Lion”, it may seem to be a foregone conclusion that the writer is advocating aggressive action as a means of political change. Violence, after all, is at times overt and physical in the novel, and at times it is also subtle, complex and psychological. Still, no matter how the violence is presented in the text, it is nonetheless omnipresent, always pulsing beneath the surface of the story and serving as the crucible in which relationships are forged and destroyed. A more nuanced reading of Ondaatje’s novel, however, situated within a larger theoretical and historical framework, suggests that Ondaatje is simply using the same tools of the powerful to render a profound analysis of the processes of society building and the recording of history. In this reading, the various forms of violence that are witnessed by the reader serve as the best means of understanding the quality of relationships. Far from endorsing violence as a means of political change, In “In the Skin of a Lion” Ondaatje simply wants to understand violence and how its dynamics impact the processes of creating a community and writing its history. In other words, through the writing of the text, the author is not simply using violence as a simple plot device, but he is seeking to explore the function and meaning of violence in more general and overarching terms. The violence that is so palpable in “In the Skin of a Lion” by Michael Ondaatje begins early in the novel and it does not escape the reader that this early introduction is setting the tone for the rest of the book. The reader is introduced to young Patrick Lewis, who helps his father deploy dynamite in order to clear up log jams in a river. While this type of violence is not interpersonal, the use of a strong explosive does have symbolic importance. Despite the fact that Patrick and his father are doing
work that presumably clears the way, literally, for the construction of an infrastructure that will usher Toronto into the modern age, the message conveyed to the reader through the use of this metaphor is that destruction is as much a part of society building as construction is. Certainly, while again it is not a directed sort of violence between feuding parties, it is nonetheless the application of brute force. This message if reinforced when the reader learns that Mr. Lewis, Patrick’s father, has been killed in a mine by a fallen piece of feldspar. While seemingly insignificant in the overall scheme of the story, the author uses this event to emphasize that people die unintentionally and unexpectedly in the process of building a community or a society. Indeed, the fact that Patrick’s father is all but forgotten after this incident is important in and of itself. Many anonymous individuals toil and even give their lives in the process of nation-building, and they will never be recalled by history. This forgetting is yet another kind of violence, for it obliterates the memory of those who made modern life possible. Mr. Lewis is the first, but he will not be the last, of Ondaatje’s characters to fall in the line of some form of service to society.
The early exposure to explosives will continue to have a significant influence on Patrick and his future experiences. For example, in “Skin of a Lion” by Michael Ondaatje when Patrick falls in love with Clara Dickens and realizes that she is romantically attached to the millionaire Ambrose Small, Small responds by attempting to burn Patrick and then obliterate him completely by throwing a Molotov cocktail at him. Patrick survives, but is burned, and it is probably this experience that marks a turning point in Patrick’s understanding of and feelings about power and violence. Not only is this a direct act of violence in “In the Skin of a Lion” by Michael Ondaatje that is presented in this situation, it also revolves around the theme of explosives and explosive violence. The use of an explosive to play on the theme of violence in the novel is also important because not only is there the sense of something blowing up in a way that cannot be controlled or contained, there is also the sense of something that is hot or dangerous to even come near. After this event and second exposure to explosives and violence, Patrick is forever changed. Over the course of the remainder of the novel, Patrick will appropriate the only tools of the powerful that are available to him to assert himself. Since money is not one of the tools, Patrick uses what he knows: explosive devices. In the most concrete sense, explosives are more powerful than money, for they have the power to destruct what money has built. By the novel’s conclusion, Patrick has set a hotel for the wealthy on fire and he has laid plans for blowing up Toronto’s filtration plant using explosives. An empathic reader understands that Patrick is not an evil individual, but one who has been subjected to so much hardship that he has appropriated the same kinds of violence that have been employed against him and turned those tools against the oppressors. Nonetheless, no matter how much the reader may come to find Patrick a sympathetic character, the use and presence of violence in the novel is so overpowering that one comes away from it feeling disturbed and harbors a new understanding for the many subtle and complex reasons for violence in all its forms.
While the elements of violence discussed here are certainly present in this novel, it is worth mentioning that such a paradox is not uncommon for Ondaatje and the thematic interests he explores in his prose (Fallon 319). Ondaatje, a transcultural immigrant himself, struggles to understand and accept his own patchwork identity and find his place in a society through the characters in his novels. The very conditions and circumstances that shape the immigrant, then, are themselves paradoxical. As Fallon observes, “The domestic and violent, mythic and mundane, fictional and historical, inner and outer, natural and artificial often collide, producing a violent energy that drives the work forward” (319). These same dynamic tensions are what drive the life of the immigrant forward. Fallon further contends that these paradoxes are invented and deployed by Ondaatje in order to “challenge the boundaries between genres and states of being” (319). Ondaatje, Fallon writes, “portrays the arbitrary nature of those boundaries by blurring them, and [sets up] the violent clash of opposites (319). He is not advocating violence, then, but is simply acknowledging that it exists. Given the admission of this fact, Ondaatje seems to sense that it is his obligation as a writer and as an immigrant to explore what violence is, how it used and by whom, and how it affects the various stakeholders in a society and how it compromises their ability to forge a unified identity.
Looking outside the text, the reader can locate secondary material that supports this argument. In interviews, for example, Ondaatje has positioned himself with relationship to his literary oeuvre, and has explained why so much of his work has been so violent. He has explained that his Sri Lankan birth has kept him aware of conflicts that characterize colonial societies, and he has used as books as a “personal tunneling” to try to understand the dynamics of colonialism, society building, and the role that violence plays in both (Nasta 251). Ondaatje has expressly avoided, though, didacticism—“‘Hey, now I’ve got you, I’m going to make you listen to a lecture’”–, which he says is “often incendiary and facile” (Nasta 253). Rather, he wants to give voice to alternate narratives that may not otherwise enter the social conversation, as the tools of narrative power are often limited to the elite. Given this, Ondaatje sees the office of the writer as a moral one. Regarding this responsibility, Onddatje stated: “The morality comes with what you decide to write about, as opposed to what your judgments are [about that subject] (Nasta 254). Writing about colonialism and immigration, then, necessarily involves exploring the multiple forms of violence—physical and psychological—that characterize these social phenomena. Yet in Ondaatje’s opinion, writing about colonialism and immigration does not involve advocating for or against violence; rather, it means exploring the different stories and dynamics as an effort to understand what violence is and how it is used.
The colonialist enterprise and its legacy are characterized by their violence, both physical and psychological. Therefore, the appropriation of violence as a literary resource and a plot device may seem, at least on a first reading, to endorse violence as the means which the powerless can use to contest their condition. Yet a more nuanced reading suggests that such an appropriation actually challenges notions of violence by playing with the tools of the master. Just as Ondaatje feels a sense of responsibility as a writer to present multiple stories and diverse perspectives, so must the reader accept his or her obligation to consider multiple meanings, and especially those that go beyond facile conclusions.
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Fallon, Erin. A Reader’s Companion to the Short Story in English. Westport, CT:
Greenwood Press, 2001.
Nasta, Susheila, ed. Writing Across Worlds: Contemporary Writers Talk. New York,
Ondaatje, Michael. In the Skin of a Lion. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1987.