The Importance of the Bloor Street Viaduct as a Setting in Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion

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The Bloor Street Viaduct is a landmark bridge linking the eastern part of Toronto with the downtown core. Completed in 1919, the controversial bridge spans 490 meters across and 40 meters in the air above the Don River valley. (Carr 165-166)Designed by Edmund Burke and pushed through by public works commissioner Rowland Harris, the bridge plays a central role in the history of Toronto and in the Michael Ondaatje’s novel In the Skin of a Lion. The description of constructing the bridge in the second chapter of book one introduces the reader to several important characters and themes that carry throughout the narrative but whose importance and connection are not fully realized until much later in the novel. Ondaatje seeks to focus the reader’s attention on the stories that take place behind the written history of the city. The Bloor Street Viaduct is a central part of the city’s history both written and unwritten. In his fictional narrative, Ondaatje links real and created characters to paint a picture of life for working class immigrants in Toronto in the 1920’s and 30’s.

In a moment of self reflexivity Ondaatje reveals part of his own experience with history through Patrick. “The articles and Illustrations he found in the Riverdale Library depicted every detail about the soil, the wood, the weight of the concrete, everything but information on those who actually built the bridge.” (Ondaatje 145) This statement is strikingly similar to comments made by Michael Ondaatje in an interview regarding his novel. “…I can tell you exactly how many buckets of sand were used, because this is Toronto history, but the people who actually built the goddamn bridge were unspoken of. They’re unhistorical!”(qtd. In Sarris 186) Powerful scenes thr...

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...he city of Toronto recently had a barrier built to deter jumpers. Dereck Revington, the architect responsible for the addition to Edmund Burke’s bridge found inspiration in Ondaatje’s novel. “‘The character of Temelcoff became a kind of icon for me, the way he scoops the black bird out of the sky,’ Revington said, ‘A barrier needs the same kind of elegance and grace as Temelcoff’” (Elve)

The Bloor Street Viaduct acts as a catalyst in Michael Ondaatje’s revision of Toronto’s civic history to weave together the stories of those responsible for building the city, rather the “functionaries and their visions” who ordered the city built. (Gamlin 68) “One of the principal objectives-and successes- of the novel is to ‘betray official history’ and reveal, however faintly, the presence of the human element in such Toronto landmarks as the Bloor Street Viaduct.” (Sarris 188)

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