In the Skin of a Lion
Historical Obliviousness in Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion
Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion narrates the forgotten stories of those who contributed to the building of the city Toronto, particularly immigrants and marginal individuals. In the very first page of the novel, Ondaatje stresses the concern with personal narratives and the act of storytelling: "This is the story a young girl gathers in a car during the early hours of the morning [...] She listens to the man as he picks up and brings together various corners of the story..." (4). Similar to Crossing the River, there is a framework story, that of a man telling a story to a girl, that opens and ends the novel and gives coherence to the many personal narratives. Patrick has an audience at two narrative levels, namely, Hanna at the textual level and the reader at the extra textual one. The reader is the recipient of the macro story, which is Patrick's act of storytelling, as well as of the micro stories contained in it.
Like Phillips' novel, Ondaatje's has a circular quality that makes stories transcend time and space; In the Skin of the Lion ends where it starts. The structure of the novel resembles a Chinese box since a series of interrelated stories form concentric circles, all of which converge in Patrick's act of telling a story to Hanna.
He saw himself gazing at so many stories [...] He saw the interactions, saw how each one of them was carried by the strength of something more than themselves [...] His own life was no longer a single story but part of a mural, which was a falling together of accomplices. Patrick saw the wondrous night web --all these fragments of a human order... (145)
Similar to Caryl Phillips' Crossing the River, there is a tension between History and "her/his-stories" in Ondaatje's novel. However instead of employing historical contexts to create the tension, Ondaatje makes subtle but explicit comments on historical oblivion to individuals and their stories. History is implicitly considered as a master narrative that allows no space to articulate local narratives and to account for the richness, variety and complexity of human experience. To counterbalance the
omissions and partiality of the historical master narrative, the alternative Ondaatje proposes is to privilege and celebrate a plurality of private and local narratives that give voice to the forgotten of History. Caravaggio, for example, is sadly aware of his
being left out of the History of the city he has helped to build. Like Nicholas Temelcoff, he is painfully conscious of his anonymity and marginality: "He was anonymous.[...] He would never leave his name where his skill had been. He was one of those who have a fury or a sadness of only being described by someone else" (199). His story has never been legitimised. When Nicholas Temelcoff realises "how he has been sewn into history. [He decides] he will begin to tell stories"...