In the Skin of a Lion


Michael Ondaatje

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In the Skin of a Lion Summary

Through fragmented stories and evocative memories, In the Skin of a Lion recounts the story of its protagonist, Patrick Lewis, and his experiences as a member of the Canadian working class.

The novel opens as Patrick is driving with a young girl—whom the reader later discovers is Hana—toward Marmora, Ontario, and Patrick recounts his memories out loud. The girl is inclined to trust Patrick’s version of the story. Even if he were to tell her that there is a castle outside, she would have to believe him, because they are driving through the countryside in darkness, and she has no way of looking out to see for herself.

Patrick grows up in Eastern Ontario, where he helps his taciturn father, Hazen Lewis, with manual labor on various farms. In the winter, anonymous groups of foreign loggers come to Patrick’s town to cut down trees, and Patrick observes them from afar. After Hazen experiments with dynamite, he becomes part of the logging process himself, working as a dynamiter for companies in charge of taking logs down the river. Patrick accompanies his father on his dynamiting expeditions, helping him by diving into the freezing river to set dynamite onto jammed logs. In his free time, Patrick enjoys solitary, nighttime activities such as reading a geography book and observing the shapes and colors of moths. One night, Patrick steps out of the house and, attracted by specks of light, discovers the foreign loggers skating and laughing on the frozen river while carrying burning cattails. The sight excites Patrick’s imagination but he feels too shy to join them and walks back home, amazed by this magical scene.

In the meantime, in Toronto, Commissioner Harris presides over the construction of the Bloor Street Viaduct. There, workers take part in exhausting, dangerous work. One worker in particular, Macedonian immigrant Nicholas Temelcoff, distinguishes himself by his bravery and his talent. He takes part in the most acrobatic tasks, often working by hanging off the bridge. One night, when a group of lost nuns walks on the bridge, one of them falls off and Nicholas saves her, though everyone believes that the nun has disappeared forever. While the nun, who keeps silent throughout this entire episode, tries to mend Nicholas’s shoulder, which he has dislodged when he caught her, the two of them walk to Nicholas’s friend Kosta’s restaurant. There, they share an intimate moment in the empty restaurant. The nun vanishes the next day, transforming her habit into a dress and entering ordinary civilian life.

Patrick arrives in Toronto at the age of twenty-one. There, he finds work as a “searcher”: one of the many people employed to search for millionaire Ambrose Small, a predatory businessman who has disappeared without leaving a trace. Patrick’s investigations lead him to Small’s lover, the actress Clara Dickens, with whom Patrick soon falls in love. The two of them begin a passionate love affair, although Clara repeatedly warns Patrick that she will one day leave him to return to Small. When they go to Clara’s friend Alice Gull’s country house for a few days, Patrick learns more about Clara’s past life, and in particular her erotic anecdotes, but he feels that a part of her will always remain out of his reach. When Alice joins them, Patrick is amazed by the friendship and complicity that exists between the two women.

Back in Toronto, Patrick tries to convince Clara not to leave him, but she decides to take the train to Ambrose anyway, after warning Patrick not to search for her and leaving him with her pet, a blind iguana. Unable to move on, Patrick spends the next two years of his life obsessed with Clara’s absence. When he runs into Alice one day and she later comes to his apartment, Patrick and she make love. However, Alice notices that Patrick is still overwhelmed by the memory of Clara and she tells him to go look for Clara, so that he can finally get rid of her dark influence over his life.

Patrick then discovers that Clara and Ambrose are hiding in the region where he grew up. Although he finds Ambrose’s house and tells him that all he wants is to speak to Clara, Ambrose believes that Patrick is interested in receiving the reward for his capture. Therefore, Ambrose tries to kill Patrick by setting him on fire. However, Patrick manages to wound Ambrose with his knife and escape. Back at his hotel, Patrick hears a knock on the door and discovers that Clara has come to see him. She explains that she did not think Patrick would be so affected by her departure. After she sends a doctor for him, the two of them make love, leaving bloodstains on the sheets from Patrick’s wounds. However, Clara leaves the next morning and returns to Ambrose’s house.

Back in Toronto, Patrick finds a job in the tunnels for the waterworks that Commissioner Harris is now building. In addition to routine manual labor, Patrick is sometimes called to dynamite large sections of walls, using the skills that he learned from his father. In the meantime, Commissioner Harris, focused only on the beauty of what he is building, shows absolutely no concern for the dangerous and unsanitary conditions in which his workers are forced to toil.

In the city, Patrick leads a solitary life, focused only on his work and his basic needs. His colleagues, as well as the members of the neighborhood he lives in, are mostly foreign immigrants he cannot communicate with. However, one day, when he explains to the Macedonian shop owners he buys food from that he has a pet iguana, the entire Macedonian community becomes extremely curious about Patrick’s life. Moved by the concern and friendliness around him, Patrick realizes that he misses having social relationships in his life. Feeling welcomed into a new community, he joins the Macedonians one evening for an illegal show at the waterworks. There, foreign immigrants of various origins watch skits that have strong political undertones. One of the shows depicts the story of an immigrant who is abused by the police and who begins to bang on the stage in protest. Shocked at the intensity of this scene, Patrick rushes on stage to keep the actor from hurting himself. There, he discovers that the actor is a woman and, moved by her performance, he goes backstage after the show to look for her. When he finally finds her, she calls him by his name and he realizes that she is none other than Alice Gull.

Patrick and Alice then begin a romantic relationship that makes Patrick feel joyous and fulfilled in a way he has never experienced before. Alice has a daughter, Hana, from a lover who died while she was pregnant. Her lover, Cato, was a political activist who was killed by business leaders for trying to organize unions among Finnish loggers in the countryside. Through this story, Patrick discovers that the anonymous loggers he knew in his youth were Finnish immigrants. Patrick feels guilty for not knowing more about the Finns’ history or about the history of labor organization in the region.

Patrick also discovers that Alice now has strong political opinions. She advocates against societal injustice, accusing the rich of exploiting the working class for their own advantage and believing in the necessity of a working-class revolution. Despite her belief in the grand ideals of equality and justice, though, she does not feel comfortable with the idea of ordering someone to kill for a political cause. This peaceful aspect of her personality makes Patrick fall in love with her, as he too believes that grand causes should remain moved by compassion.

Despite her frequent stories about her relationship with Cato, Alice refuses to talk about her past, focusing instead on her present and future. However, Patrick becomes intrigued by one of Alice’s photographs of bridge workers and decides to investigate the topic. He thus learns that Nicholas Temelcoff, the baker whom Hana is friends with, was once a worker on the Bloor Street Viaduct. In addition, Patrick discovers that a nun once disappeared on this bridge. Tying together various pieces of information, Patrick concludes that Alice must have been this nun, and that this episode sparked her friendship with Nicholas, who later gave up bridge building to open a bakery.

Through Alice and Hana, Patrick discovers the intricacies of the Macedonian culture and language. He realizes that, despite being Canadian, he is an alien in this diverse neighborhood. In this way, the typical dynamic of immigration is reversed: even though immigrants are traditionally told to integrate into Canadian society, Patrick finds that he is the one who needs to adapt to his foreign neighbors and absorb their customs if he wants to fit in. This gives Patrick respect for the tight-knit quality of the Macedonians’ community and for their historical role in building Toronto’s infrastructure, through their participation in the city’s various construction projects.

Patrick’s peaceful life is cut short by Alice’s death. Although the details of her last moments are not known until the end of the novel, Patrick later recounts that she died because she mistakenly grabbed a bag in the street that contained a bomb. When it exploded, Patrick, who was nearby, ran towards her and held her in his arms while she died. Overwhelmed by grief and anger, Patrick decides to take revenge on the rich. Leaving Hana with Nicholas Temelcoff, Patrick goes to the seaside to try to burn down a fancy hotel, the Muskoka Hotel. He is arrested for this and spends five years in prison, where he meets the thief Caravaggio.

The narrative then shifts briefly to Caravaggio’s story, describing him as an adventurous, charismatic thief specialized in stealing paintings. In prison, Caravaggio was attacked by a group of men who insulted him for being Italian and cut his neck. As Caravaggio runs away through the countryside and hides in a cottage by a lake, he recalls various episodes of his life, including the moment he met his wife Giannetta while hiding in a mushroom factory after hurting his ankle during a robbery.

When Patrick is released from prison, he returns to Toronto and reconnects with Hana. This allows him to realize that loving relationships are what give meaning to his life. Although he initially wanted to stay in silence and avoid communication to mourn Alice’s death, he now understands that it is his duty to protect the people around him and give them as much love as he can

At the same time, he does not lose track of his political goals. With his friends Caravaggio and Giannetta, he organizes an expedition to the waterworks to dynamite the building, in order to protest against the horrific conditions the workers are exposed to. Although Patrick succeeds in entering the heavily guarded building, he fails to make his dynamite explode. Instead, he takes part in a conversation with Commissioner Harris about the working class. Patrick’s goal is to arouse compassion in Harris and make him aware of the responsibility the Commissioner has toward his workers’ lives. However, Harris remains focused on trying to justify himself, invoking the beauty of the infrastructure he has built as an excuse for exploiting workers. In the end, though, Harris sets Patrick free, understanding that Patrick was less intent on taking his life than on making his voice heard.

After this episode, Patrick leads a caring life with Hana. One evening, Clara Dickens calls him, announcing that Ambrose Small has died and that she needs Patrick’s help. When Clara asks who the young girl is who answered the phone, Patrick initially fails to define his relationship but ultimately tells Clara that Hana is his daughter. In this way, he finally accepts responsibility for Hana’s life. He says he will go pick Clara up with Hana, telling the young girl that he will tell her about Clara on the way.

Patrick and Hana thus embark on a journey at dawn, taking the car for a four-hour trip to Marmora, Ontario, where Clara is waiting for them. On the way, Patrick prepares to tell Hana about Clara. Patrick’s storytelling thus opens and concludes the novel, putting his memories and his narrative voice at the forefront.