Post Colonial Literature in English: Canada

The Struggle of Postmodernism and Postcolonialism in Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion

Gilbert McInnis, Postgraduate Student, Laval University, Canada

This web essay is based upon a paper the author wrote for Professor Neil Bissoondath's "Postcolonial Literature II" [ANG-64699A], Laval University.

Caryl Phillips is not the only post-colonial writer who strives to recast history as a "redefinable" present, for even Michael Ondaatje in his book In the Skin of a Lion also attempts to reconstruct history in a "redifenable" present too. Gamlin helps clarify this idea when he says that, "Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion revises Toronto's civic history. While official accounts mention chiefly the town's city planners and corporations, Ondaatje's allots less narrative space to such functionaries and their visions and concentrates on those who built the city and their stories instead" (68). Like Phillips, Ondaatje is also burdened by his post-colonial dilemmas, but in a fashion that reveals a post-colonial writer's drift towards ideas of post-modernism. For Ondaatje's part, he re-evaluates history, the marginalized, the power struggle between the center and the periphery, and finally language as a source of power in a post-colonial context.

Like Philips, Ondaatje uses material for the novel recaptured from the past, but examined through the lenses of post-modernism, thus making his material redifinably present. First, Ondaatje questions the validity of the notion that an official history actually exists. For example, his novel begins with the unofficial history of a small community in Toronto: "This is a story a young girl gathers in a car during the early hours of the morning. She listens and asks questions as the vehicle travels through darkness . . .Driving the four hours to Marmora under six stars and a moon. She stays awake to keep him company." The end of Ondaatje's story brings us back to this event, as if Patrick has told history not only to the young girl Hana, but, ultimately, to us. But "What Patrick passes on to her [and therefore us] is not an 'official history," and there are no statistics attached to it; and it is only one of the living narratives Hana will use to position herself in the world" (19).

One theory that is central to post-modernism is the idea that there is no one grand narrative in history, and by his attempt to reconstruct an unofficial history of Toronto, Ondaatje reveals his tendency to accept a post-modernist idea to solve a post-colonial dilemma. First, Patricia Waugh says, "central to the 'postmodern condition' . . .is a recognition and account of the way in which the 'grand narratives" of Western history and, in particular, enlightened modernity, have broken down" (5). Second, Ondaatje reevaluates the 'grand" narrative idea in a post-colonial context, especially if we take into account what Tiffin had said earlier: that "the history of post-colonial territories, was, until recently, largely a narrative constructed by the colonizers" (173). And Ondaatje's attempt to question whether one official history of a colonial society in Toronto ever existed reveals how post-modernism and post-colonialism merge in his novel.

One way Ondaatje deconstructs Toronto's official history is in his attempt to subvert linear notions of causation, which is a post-modernists reaction to the traditional Aristotelian linear narrative form. One example from the novel that attempts to subvert the traditional linear narrative and replace it with Ondaatje's post-modernists idea happens between Patrick and Clara. Patrick in the beginning of the novel has no sense of history, but this only remains so until Clare initiates him into a new sense of history:

. . .he bent down and put his mouth on hers. He took it, the white character, and they passed it back and forth between them till it no longer existed, till they didn"t know who had him like a lost planet somewhere in a body . . .He loved the eroticism of her history (69).

Gamlin claims that Clare is associated with this new sense of history, oral narrative, and that the "oral exchange of the seed makes the mouths wombs for a process of origination which subverts linear notions of causation" (71). Furthermore, the story Patrick begins to tell Hana at the end of the novel (or beginning if you like) is "linked" to this moment with Clara, and by doing so, Ondaatje designs Clara as an "intersection," where people, who pass through her, learn herstory instead of an "official" history.

Clara and Alice first initiate Patrick into this intersecting story when they "magically" draw a mural of him. We are told, "They begin to draw hard and quickly, as if copying down a blueprint in a foreign country . . .they draw upon all they know or can guess about him"(75). Later in the novel Patrick partially recognizes the significance of the mural on his sense of history when he mentions that 'something about her cast a spell on me . . .I don"t know what it is" (93). And later on, he finally comes to understand its full implications when his "own life was no longer a single story but part of a mural, which was a falling together of accomplices"(145). Patrick is charmed into learning a new sense of history and that history or a "collective" history that is made present with the two accomplices, Clara and Alice.

As Clara initiates Patrick into a social-erotic sense of history, Alice is there to initiate Patrick into a political sense of history. And by Ondaatje choosing to do so, he reveals another important element of post-modernism that he finds appealing. First, Gamlin agrees that "Alice later achieves her objectives, and Patrick is surprised when he learns that Alice has made him into a political activist" (74). In addition, Ondaatje's choice to construct Alice and Clara into mapping out Patrick's story, reveals his tendency toward a post-modernist idea. Vieth brings this together when he says that post-modernists "draw on Marx, who reduces culture to class conflict and economic exploitation. And they invoke Freud, who interprets culture in terms of sexual repression" (53). The two characters of Alice and Clara to a certain extent embody either Freudian psychoanalysis or Marxist ideology as ways of liberating Patrick from his respective oppressions.

For Alice's part, she turns Patrick's story into a power struggle defending the workers on the "periphery" against the owners of capital at the "center." Patrick's political liberation happens while attending a play put on by Alice at the Waterworks. Gamlin says that the show "demonstrates how the language barriers prevents the access of so-called ethnic minorities [the marginal] to society's institutions [the center] . . .and requires audience participation for its resolution" (73). The night Patrick attends the play, he finds that it is he who must participate in "The grand cause" against the center, and so as it happens that night the "center" is symbolically represented by Alice's character in that play. After the performance, Alice talks to Patrick and confirms this:

-- Someone always comes out of the audience to stop me, Patrick. This time it was you. My old pal.

-I don"t think you will covert me.

-Yes. I can (125).

Furthermore, she, doubly, represents the controlling individuals in her community. First on the ironic or dramatic level, the part played by Alice is distinguished from the others. She dramatically represents that center. And Ondaatje, ironically through Alice, inverts the center to the marginal. Of course, the prime agent for the center in the novel is Harris, who also she might be representing too, and Gamlin says that in this climatic confrontation the value of the periphery opposes the value of the center (71). Second, on the social and political level of the novel, Alice leads her community in the struggle against the center of power. By doing so, she then initiates Patrick into becoming the principal agent in the novel against the center of power. Alice even provides Patrick with a strategy. She says, "You name the enemy and destroy the power. Start with their luxuries-their select clubs, [and] their summer mansions"(124-25).

Patrick eventually follows the advice of Alice on how to destroy the center, and in doing so, he feels somewhat liberated. First, his conversion is evident when he begins to destroy "their luxuries," and their "select clubs." This happens when he attempts to destroy the Muskoka Hotel. He sets it on fire and bombs the dock. But he "knows he will be caught, probably imprisoned, but for now he thrills to this brief freedom" (173). Afterward, he is caught and imprisoned, but he does not give up the struggle. When he is released, Patrick sets out to "destroy the power" of the center, and that center is represented by Harris" water tunnel project and Harris himself.

Patrick's confrontation with Harris at the waterworks is the final completion of Alice's strategy, but more than that, his confrontation with Harris is symbolic of the power struggle between the marginal and the center. In addition, Schumacher stipulates that this scene involves Patrick's final confrontation with the Lacanian father-figure too (17). And furthermore, Patrick's confrontation with Harris at the end of the novel adds an ironic twist perhaps because this same confrontation is a symbolic confrontation with a European authority. This is made evident when Harris quotes Greek literature as his defense.

Nevertheless, Gamlin does say that Harris evokes classical literature to avoid Patrick's criticism and to stay in power (69). When Patrick reiterates Alice's phrase to Harris, "In a rich man's house there is nowhere to spit except in his face," Harris responds by naming the source, i.e. Diogenes. Diogenes was a philosopher who despised social conventions. His aim in life was to "deface the coinage of his time." He tried to reveal that every conventional stamp was false, the "men stamped as generals and kings; the things stamped as honour and wisdom and happiness and riches; all were base metal with lying superscription . . .He lived like an Indian fakir, by begging" (Russell 241). Harris is well aware of Diogenes, unlike Patrick, because Patrick returns with "I don"t know" (239). Patrick's struggle with Harris fails, not because he lacked the power to kill Harris, but Patrick's failure happens on the level of language. This brings to mind what Rushdie had said earlier, that language was the beginning point of the struggle, but furthermore that a "writer who is out-of-country and even out-of-language may experience this loss." If this is so, then Patrick has failed because he has failed to "conquer" the language.

Another post-modernist invention that Ondaatje utilizes is the notion of meta-fiction. Spearey says that "In the case of In the Skin of a Lion, a list of such media would include archival records, personal photographs and momentoes, dramatic scripts for both radio and theatre, lyrics of popular songs, films, altases, newspaper clippings, letters, tall tales, blueprints and even dreams" (46). One only has to examine the copyright acknowledgments in the beginning of the book to understand fully the sources that Ondaatje has used to compile the book:

Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint previously published song lyrics from "Up Jumped You with Love" C.R. Publishing Company and "I Can"t Get Started" Chappel Music Company. The lines from The Epic of Gilgamesh are from the N.K. Sandars translation (Penguin, 1960). Two sentences on the photographs of Lewis Hine are by Judith Mara Gutman from her essay "Lewis Hine and the American Social Conscience" (1969). Two sentences have been used from the journal of Anne Wilkinson. Lines from Martha Ostenso's Wild Geese are from the 1925 McClelland and Stewart edition.

By Ondaatje incorporating theses sources into his novel, the narrative events "contained in the account are endowed with a meaning by being identified as parts of an integrated whole." Essentially, Ondaatje has fused many worlds, and many narratives together into one "collective whole.

Not only does the writer fuse together various parts of different meta-fiction into one integrated whole, he also, through language, fuses "memory" to a present reality to create one integrated whole. This happens in the novel shortly after Ambrose Small sets Patrick on fire. Clare comes to his rescue at his Hotel. She then nurses him back to health, and in the middle of the night, around "three in the morning she felt his body against her. They touched, both moving careful of his wounds, all over each other as if meeting in a dream"(99). When she returns the following day to Ambrose's hotel, she is caught up in the "memory" of the love making the night before with Patrick. While experiencing this "memory," Ambrose arrives shortly after to complete the fusion of memory with a present reality:

Not knowing what was happening now at the hotel, that with the light Patrick had awakened to find the sheets thick with blood which had escaped from his dressing, from their moving together in the darkness, discovering even the print of her hand perfect on the wallpaper, a print of blood on the English flowers of his bedroom where she leaned to balance herself in their lovemaking . . .The dressing hung off him like a limp white rib while Ambrose came down from the house and saw her sitting there thinking, looking at Patrick's river (100; emphasis mine).

Through the language, Ondaatje fuses memory to a present reality making one integrated whole. He achieves this feat by fusing Alice "memory" of the night before (with Patrick) linguistically to her present reality (with Ambrose). The present reality: "while Ambrose came down from the house and saw her sitting there thinking" is fused linguistically inside, "dressing hung off him like a limp white rib (while Abrose came down from the house and saw her sitting there thinking), looking at Patrick's river." Ondaatje attempts at fusing memory to present reality brings to mind what Rushdie had said earlier, "The struggle of man against power . . .is the struggle of memory against forgetting." Memory is renewed each time when it is made applicable in the present, 2and Ondaatje does this through the language of the novel.

So have we arrived at any definite reasons as to why either Cary Phillips or Michael Ondaatje have drifted toward the ideas of post-modernism? I believe both writers utilize the ideas of post-modernism for their respective post-colonial aims. Furthermore, the stylistic devices of post-modernism used by both authors are manipulated to enhance the aesthetic of each novel, and not to "control" the novels meaning, nor do the ideas of post-modernism preoccupy the authors from their respective purposes. However, it seems ironic that post-colonial writers would embrace elements of a system that had for centuries controlled them. Tiffin recognizes this irony too when she says, "it is ironic that the label of 'post-modern" is increasingly being applied to hegemonically, to cultures and texts outside Europe, assimilating post-colonial works whose political orientations and experimental formations have been deliberately designed to counteract such European appropriation" (170).


Gamlin, Gordon "Michael Ondaatje's 'In the Skin of a Lion" and the Oral Narrative," Canadian Literature,135, 1992.

Landow, George P. Hypertext: The Converence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology, Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Ondaatje, Michael In the Skin of a Lion, Toronto: Vintage Canada, 1996.

Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands. Granta Books, 1991.

Schumacher, Rod. "Patrick's Quest: Narration and Subjectivity in Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion," Studies in Canadian Literature, 21, 2, 1996.

Speary, Susan. "Mapping and Masking: The Migrant Experience in Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of the Lion," Journal of Commonwealth Literature, XXIX, 2, 1994.

Tiffin, Helen. "Post-Colonism, Post-Modernism and the Rehabilitation of PostColonial History," Journal of Commonwealth Literature, XXX, 2, 1993.

Waugh, Patrica. Postmodernism: A Reader. New York: Edward Arnold, 1992.

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