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In the Skin of a Lion
3.1.2004 by Julian, every Tuesday.

Many moons ago, before the coming of the Books, Tangmonkey Dot Com was a desolate place. Music Reviews roamed wild across the site and paid homage to the ancient Saurus. Then came Books. Books brought enlightenment and literacy to the primitive Tangmonkians in more-or-less weekly installments. Books slew the Saurus and a new golden age dawned…

But that was all long ago. Nobody knows what happened to Books or what caused him to cease his weekly updates. Some say he died in the Great War of Words. Others say he was kidnapped and pressed into the service of the evil empire of Kool-Aid Dog Dot Net. In any case, Tangmonkey Dot Com was once more plunged into darkness. The Music Reviews reestablished the old ways, with Cocktail Conspiracies and Blank as their lackeys. The sage wisdom that Books had brought was all but forgotten.

But Books is back and it’s better than ever before. Check it! The pages of Tangmonkey shall once more be graced with the enlightenment and wisdom of the world’s greatest (and not-so-great) literature. Furthermore, the once-singular entity that formed the mind of Books is now twain. Julian and Nathan will be sharing the great Burden of Words that mortals call a weekly column.

I began the first ever Books column by bitching about the ill-conceived ‘Canada Reads’ competition, in which one Canadian novel was picked for everyone in Canada to read. That book, In the Skin of a Lion, was not actually the subject of the review and I claimed I had no intention of reading it. Well, times change, and in the interest of symmetry the newly relaunched column will open with a review of Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, which everyone in Canada has (theoretically) read. Have you? I didn’t think so.

I’ve always found Toronto to be a fairly bland city, and if you’ve ever seen that Simpson’s episode where they go to Canada you’ll know that Marge agrees with me. Given that it’s now the fifth largest in North America (after the megafication) you’d think it’s size alone would be enough to make it an interesting place to go, but it just hasn’t got the mythology that somewhere like New York or San Francisco have. There just aren’t that many legends about Toronto.

When I visited Toronto for New Year’s however, something was different. It wasn’t that the city had become more exciting or that some historic event had taken place, it was that I had read a novel about Toronto. I dragged my family to the Bloor Street Viaduct and watched trains travel along the lower trestles, and I knew the trestles had been built before the trains had even been invented. I thought about the descriptions of the building of that bridge from Ondaatje’s novel:
His work is so exceptional and time-saving he earns one dollar an hour while the other bridge workers receive forty cents. There is no jealousy towards him. No one dreams of doing half the things he does. For night work he is paid $1.25, swinging up into the rafters of a trestle holding a flare, free-falling like a dead star. He does not really need to see things, he has charted all that space, knows the pier footings, the width of the cross-walks in terms of seconds of movement – 281 feet and 6 inches make up the central span of the bridge. Two flanking spans of 240 feet, two end spans of 158 feet. He slips into openings on the lower deck, tackles himself up to bridge level. He knows the precise height he is over the river, how long his ropes are, how many seconds he can free-fall to the pulley. It does not matter if it is day or night, he could be blindfolded. Black space is time. After swinging for three seconds he puts his feet up to link with the concrete edge of the next pier. He knows his position in the air as if he is mercury slipping across a map.
The Toronto Ondaatje imagines is one of immigrants and labour. Set in the 20s and 30s the novel’s center is the construction of the Bridge, the digging of a long tunnel beneath Lake Ontario, and the building of the Waterworks (or the “Palace of Purification”). Commissioner Harris is the driving force behind all three projects, a man of vision and obsession. Ondaatje’s protagonist, Patrick Lewis, is educated and Canadian-born, but he works among the mainly immigrant labourers on Harris’s projects. Patrick is decidedly not a man of vision, but he becomes inspired by love and revolution. He pits himself against Commissioner Harris and all that he stands for.

The novel aspires to be anti-capitalist. It decries the exploitation and suffering on which the city of Toronto was built, but it is also aware of its inability to be truly revolutionary. Patrick is a reluctant radical and the message of the book is ambiguous. It is less a call to arms than an exploration of an ideology within a historical context.

In the Skin of a Lion is Ondaatje’s most accessible novel. Gone is the experimental prose-poetry of his earlier works. The writing remains beautiful, but it is straightforward at the same time. Ondaatje’s greatest strength here is his ability to describe scenes of hard labour and make them beautiful without romanticizing them:
Dye work took place in the courtyards next to the warehouse. Circular pools had been cut into the stone -- into which the men leapt waist-deep within the reds and ochres and greens, leapt in embracing the skins of recently slaughtered animals. In the round wells four-foot in diameter they heaved and stomped ensuring the dye went solidly into the pores of the skin that had been part of a live animal the previous day. And the men stepped out in colours up to their necks, pulling wet hides out after them so it appeared they had removed the skin from their own bodies. They had leapt into different colours as if into different countries.

What the dyers wanted, standing there together, the representatives from separate nations, was a cigarette. To stand during the five-minute break dressed in green talking to a man in yellow, and smoke. To take in the fresh energy of smoke and swallow it deep into their lungs, roll it around and breathe it out so it would remove with luck the acrid texture already deep within them, stuck within every corner of their flesh. A cigarette, a star beam through their flesh, would have been enough to purify them. […] And they could never smoke – the acid of the solution they had stepped into and out of so strong that they would have ignited if a flame touched them

A green man of fire
Other than the plotty ending, which lacks the subtleties of flavour built up throughout the rest of the book, In the Skin of a Lion is a wonderful read. It is just the sort of artifact that gives Toronto character as a city. With more books like this the city could shed its blandness and acquire a true identity – a soul.

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