Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion

Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion

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"Any critical reading of a text will be strengthened by a knowledge of how a text is valued by readers in differing contexts."
Discuss this statement and show how your critical understanding of the text has been strengthened by at least two different readings.
Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion is a text that is given new meaning when viewed from differing perspectives. Readers approach the text with their own unique past and experience, which influences their perception and interpretation of the novel. Two such interpretations are the Post-Modern and Post-Colonial readings of In the Skin of a Lion. These two readings give the text more dimension, and with the awareness that this novel can be interpreted in numerous ways, a reader's understanding is strengthened and deepened.
Post-Modernism, the absence of any certainty, discredits the values of modernism, opposing the fixed principles of meaning and value. It is built on countless theories about society, the media and knowledge of the world, but it is also aware that there is no ultimate way of making sense of humanity. Ondaatje embraces aspects of post-modernism, by creating a novel that breaks away from the traditional narrative, thereby giving readers a greater perspective on the novel. One learns that any story is simply a storyteller's construction, and is never unbiased.
In the Skin of a Lion is self reflexive- it disrupts the reading process to explore its own textual nature. Ondaatje breaks the illusion of reality and engages the reader in the process of making the meaning of the text, rather than simply allowing them to receive it. The responder is made a producer rather than simply a consumer. "Only the best art can order the chaotic tumble of events. Only the best can realign chaos to suggest both the chaos and order it will become." Here, Ondaatje uses the device of intrusion, where an author makes a direct comment on his novel, telling readers to be patient and wait for the intentional disarray to fall into its natural order.
This "chaos" is also created through the use of frame- a story within a story. Towards the conclusion of the novel, the corners of the story are pulled together and readers are able to close the frame that encapsulated the inner story. The car ride is the result of Ondaatje's ability to transcend time and space- the story ends at the beginning of the novel and begins at the end, as if Patrick has told his story not only to the young girl Hana, but ultimately, to readers.

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This discontinuity and fragment is used in a deliberate attempt to destabilize the conventional narrative and proceed in a manner that imitates the sequence of memory, reminding readers that his novel, like one's memory, can be unreliable. He searches for a version of the truth through experimentation and human experience, disputing the way dominant cultures have imposed their views as the ultimate truth. There is no one grand narrative in history.
With the knowledge of the principles of Post-Modern literature, readers undertaking a critical reading of Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion can identify for themselves the sense of no boundaries, which leads to exciting experimentation and a playfulness of design. A close viewing of the text brings out hidden elements, giving new meaning to the text and allowing them to see another version of the truth, enhancing their overall understanding. One can now critically assess the novel as not only a story, but as a comment on the "European truth".
Post-Colonialism is a resistance to the colonial power and addresses and gives voice to the minorities who historically were silenced. Ondaatje retells the story of Toronto from the perspective of the migrants who literally built the foundations on which Toronto resides today. These once marginalised migrants are now given a chance to present history from their perspective and give readers ‘the underside of history'.
Ondaatje tells the stories of the marginalised characters of Toronto. Caravaggio the thief, Nicholas Temelcoff the daredevil and Patrick the tunnel worker have all chosen to tell their own stories- to take control of their lives. Ondaatje weaves the story around characters that have chosen to take on that responsibility. "His own life was no longer a single story but part of a mural, which was a falling together of accomplices. Patrick saw the wondrous night web- all these fragments of a human order." Through these characters, one also sees how the colonial powers dominated over them, marginalizing and alienating them in a city where they sought home. Barriers of language, culture and beliefs held these individuals back, imprisoning them "in the tunnels and the stockyards". They were even denied the right to communicate in their own language. It was "a rule of the city"- a city that imposed their philosophies and values on struggling, anonymous migrants who were only known by their trade, "A tarrer of roads, a house builder, a painter, a thief."
In the past, minority groups have been suppressed and not given the opportunity to present their version of history. Alice emphasises the importance of telling personal stories: "Each person had their moment when they assumed the skins of wild animals, when they took responsibility for their story." Here, Ondaatje is again talking directly to the reader, explaining the meaning of the title- he tells readers to take action, explaining that history is never unbiased- it is tainted by the storyteller's prejudice. The imagery in the title, and throughout the book, indicates that assuming the skin of a lion can be a way of legitimising one's life in order to compensate for historical omissions. This provides an opportunity for the once marginalised persons to stand up and be heard.
The Post-Colonial context gives one a strengthened understanding of Ondaatje's purpose in writing this novel- to narrate the forgotten stories of those who contributed to the building of the city of Toronto. Through this narration, readers are given an alternative, if not more truthful, version of Toronto's history.
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. The ideas of Post-Modernism and Post-Colonialism compliment each other- one questions the way the truth has been told and the other allows someone else to tell it. Michael Ondaatje utilises the ideas of post-modernism for his post-colonial aims- to bring the marginalised to the centre. The idea of the opposing societal groups and the struggle for a voice can be drawn from this novel and is reinforced and elaborated on by these two readings. The understanding of these two readings allows one to approach the novel In the Skin of a Lion with an understanding that there are as many readers, as there are responders, making it a text worth critical analysis.
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