In the Skin of a Lion is a love story and an irresistible mystery set in the turbulent, muscular new world of Toronto in the 20s and 30s. Michael Ondaatje entwines adventure, romance and history, real and invented, enmeshing us in the lives of the immigrants who built the city and those who dreamed it into being: the politically powerful, the anarchists, bridge builders and tunnellers, a vanished millionaire and his mistress, a rescued nun and a thief who leads a charmed life. This is a haunting tale of passion, privilege and biting physical labour, of men and women moved by compassion and driven by the power of dreams -- sometimes even to murder.close this panel
An April night in 1917. Harris and Pomphrey were on the bridge, in the dark wind. Pomphrey had turned west and was suddenly stilled. His hand reached out to touch Harris on the shoulder, a gesture he had never made before.
Walking on the bridge were five nuns.
Past the Dominion Steel castings wind attacked the body directly. The nuns were walking past the first group of workers at the fire. The bus, Harris thought, must have dropped them off near Castle Frank and the nuns had, with some confusion at that hour, walked the wrong way in the darkness.
They had passed the black car under the trees and talking cheerfully stepped past the barrier into a landscape they did not know existed -- onto a tentative carpet over the piers, among the night labourers. They saw the fire and the men. A few tried to wave them back. There was a mule attached to a wagon. The hiss and jump of machines made the ground under them lurch. A smell of creosote. One man was washing his face in a barrel of water.
The nuns were moving towards a thirty-yard point on the bridge when the wind began to scatter them. They were thrown against the cement mixers and steam shovels, careering from side to side, in danger of going over the edge.
Some of the men grabbed and enclosed them, pulling leather straps over their shoulders, but two were still loose. Harris and Pomphrey at the far end looked on helplessly as one nun was lifted up and flung against the compressors. She stood up shakily and then the wind jerked her sideways, scraping her along the concrete and right off the edge of the bridge. She disappeared into the night by the third abutment, into the long depth of air which held nothing, only sometimes a rivet or a dropped hammer during the day.
Then there was no longer any fear on the bridge. The worst, the incredible had happened. A nun had fallen off the Prince Edward Viaduct before it was even finished. The men covered in wood shavings or granite dust held the women against them. And Commissioner Harris at the far end stared along the mad pathway. This was his first child and it had already become a murderer.
Author of eleven books of poetry, four novels and a fictionalized memoir, Michael Ondaatje was born in 1943 in Colombo, capital of the British colony of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Of Tamil, Sinhalese and Dutch descent, he was the youngest of four children. He grew up during the halcyon days of colonial Ceylon on the Kutapitiya tea estate, “the most beautiful place in the world,” as he described in an interview with The Guardian. His mother’s real gift to Michael was her enthusiasm for the arts. Of his father, who served in the Ceylon light infantry, Ondaatje has said: “My father was in tea and alcohol; he dealt in tea and he drank the alcohol.” He died of a brain hemorrhage after Michael had left Sri Lanka, so Michael never got to know his father as an adult. “He is still one of those books we long to read whose pages remain uncut. He was a sad and mercurial figure. There was a lot I didn’t know about him … In all my books there are mysteries that are not fully told.”
When Michael was five his parents separated. His mother soon went to England with two of her children; Michael stayed behind and lived with relatives, joining his mother and siblings at the age of eleven. He relinquished his sarong and donned a tie – an item of clothing he’d never seen before – to attend Dulwich College, whose alumni include writers Graham Swift, P. G. Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler. (One of Michael’s former teachers expressed surprise when Ondaatje won the Booker, since he had “always seemed more interested in cricket.”) In 1962, at the age of nineteen, he went to Quebec, where his brother Christopher (today a businessman and explorer) was living. It was in Canada that Michael Ondaatje’s writing life began in earnest: “[Y]ou felt you could do anything. I wouldn’t have been a writer if I’d stayed in England … where you feel, what right do you have to do this because of John Donne and Sir Philip Sidney. England felt repressive in the fifties … Moving, you learn twice as much; it doubles you in some way, like living three or four lives.”
Ondaatje obtained a B.A. from the University of Toronto and an M.A. from Queen’s University, then taught at the University of Western Ontario and at York University. In the seventies he edited poetry, produced anthologies and critical works and short documentary films, and began his involvement with the small press Coach House.
Although he was thrust onto the world stage by the tremendous success of The English Patient, Ondaatje, who lives in Toronto, remains an intensely private person. “Privacy is essential,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of writers being interpreted by their personalities – Ginsberg, Layton …You want the book to be read, not the author.” When he won the Booker Prize in 1992, he used the money to inaugurate the Gratiaen award – named after his mother – as an annual literary prize for Sri Lankan writers.
In his writing Ondaatje employs a technique of blurring fact and fiction in an imaginative collage. His longer narrative works, often based on the unorthodox lives of real people, contain fact alongside fiction. For example, in Coming Through Slaughter he relates the real and imagined life of New Orleans jazz musician Buddy Bolden; in Running in the Family, he writes a fictionalized memoir of the unconventional life of his parents and grandparents in colonial Ceylon. Some of Ondaatje’s major influences come from Henri Rousseau paintings, Diego Rivera murals, Sri Lankan temple sculpture and, most of all, the music and rhythms of jazz. “If I could be Fats Waller, I wouldn’t be writing.”close this panel
"A triumph -- a powerful and revelatory accomplishment."
--The Times Literary Supplement
"Splendidly evocative and entertaining."
--The Toronto Star
"A brilliantly imaginative blend of history, lore, passion and poetry."
"What is most moving is the human connectedness of this book… so densly erotic, so subtly sensual, so intensely responsive."
"Ondaatje has written into the vivid life of fiction a part of the history of the building of Toronto as no official history would have conceived it and as no official history can now erase it."
"In the Skin of a Lion is an act of magic!"
"Beautiful … I urge you to read this book."
--The New York Times