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The postmodernist novel In the Skin of a Lion, by Michael Ondaatje, is a convincing exploration of the complex nature of power and the impact of ethnocentric domination on different cultural groups. Though lending itself to a wide variety of readings, the obvious Marxist and post-colonial themes consistently portrayed throughout the novel signify a strong relationship between those concepts and Ondaatje’s personal beliefs and values. Thus, these particular interpretations can be perceived as a mechanism by which Ondaatje’s intentions are revealed: capitalist exploitation of the working class, class struggle and the plight of the marginalised groups, and the resulting effect on the telling of history. Ondaatje’s purpose as the composer is effectively captured within three key scenes which both express and highlight the significance of the issues being explored.
The first of these scenes, detailing the (real life) official opening of the Bloor Street Viaduct, illustrates the dismissive attitude of the capitalist rich toward the contribution of the working class in building Toronto. “Christened ‘Prince Edward,’” the bridge was to be opened by a “show car containing officials,” supposedly representing those responsible for its construction. However, the procession is interrupted by someone “anonymous and cycling like hell…a blur of intent” crossing the bridge, a faction technique that Ondaatje has included to symbolise acts of resistance by ‘common people’ against those in power. The depiction of “the string of onions that he carries on his shoulder splaying out” strongly suggests that the individual is a migrant, possibly one who had worked on the bridge, strengthening the significance of his subverting the ceremonial role of the officials. The Marxist overtones of this event is supported by the reference of “thunderous applause [that] greeted him at the far end,” a celebratory gesture for undermining the capitalist class, exemplifying Ondaatje’s view on the class struggle and the value he places on the perceived powerless over the powerful.
This passage also discusses the impact of ethnocentric domination on the migrant working class, specifically the effect this has on the telling of history. Announcing (in an epigraph) that “never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one,” Ondaatje foregrounds within this scene those historically considered anonymous, despite their integral contribution to the physical and social infrastructure of Toronto. He conveys his intentions through a flashback to the eve of the official ceremony, in which “workers had arrived and brushed away officials…moved with their own flickering lights – their candles for the bridge dead.” There is no official ceremony to mourn, or even acknowledge the dead, and so the workers must conduct their own private vigil in an effort to provide at least some recognition. The evocative imagery of “their candles…like a wave of civilisation, a net of summer insects over the valley” communicates the emotional aspect of cultural disempowerment and dissatisfaction with historical anonymity. The event challenges the ethnocentric assumption of ‘official’ accounts by addressing the role of the marginalised groups who were historically silenced. In this way Ondaatje embraces the post-colonial stance of disregarding the dominant version of history “as though it were the only one,” instead providing a counter history that gives power to the unacknowledged masses.
In the next passage Ondaatje explores elements of the complexity of power in relation to storytelling and history through the characterisation of Alice and the influence of metaphor. This extract follows Alice’s puppet show, a theatrical interpretation of the migrant and working class experience demonstrating the frustration of those who are limited by their cultural dimension to give them a voice in society. During the scene she instructs Patrick, a member of the working class, that “you reach people through metaphor. It’s what I reached you with earlier tonight in the performance.” The metaphor in question, donning “the skin of a lion,” is the means by which Alice encourages the minorities to use their voice by dramatically communicating the issues of the lower class herself. The importance is then placed on the power of story-telling, which connects to the post-colonialist defiance of ethnocentricity; by having the marginalised given the opportunity to tell their own histories, they are empowered to subvert their traditional position of historical anonymity. Ondaatje is reinforcing that there is no such thing as “a single story” since ‘definitive’ history is constructed by, and only includes, those in power. As such, Alice’s characterisation as an initiator of storytelling and activist for the migrant workers reflects Ondaatje’s purpose in acknowledging the significance of ‘untold’ stories over dominant records.
Further on in this scene, power is discussed within the context of wealth and the ideals of capitalism. Patrick laments having only “about ten bucks to my name” until Alice points out the negative consequences of capitalist ambition. She claims people only succeed in becoming rich by “becoming just like the ones they want to overtake,” citing Ambrose Small as an example. The character of Small has been utilised as a symbol for “bare-knuckled capitalism” and its adverse effects on society, a typical Marxist perception of wealth and financial power. Alice, as the counterpoint to the world of the rich, describes him as “predatory,” an isolated individual who “let nothing cling to him, not even Clara.” She says she liked Patrick “because you knew that. Because you hated that in him,” emphasising her belief in the corruption of those that represent power and its damaging ability to divide society into the powerful and the powerless. This scene thus encapsulates Ondaatje’s intention in relating differing forms of power, be it communicative or financial, and the significant effect it can have on the lives of individuals and groups.
The final scene, a confrontation between Commissioner Harris (yet another symbol of authority) and Patrick, exhibits the response to the capitalist exploitation of the working class and the plight of the marginalised groups. Patrick (while holding a blasting box under his arm) demands that Harris understand the true nature of the class structure, verbally attacking him for the “goddamn herringbone tiles in the toilets [that] cost more than half our salaries put together.” Patrick, on behalf of the historically silenced minorities, forces Harris to “think about those who built the intake tunnels. Do you know how many of us died in there?” As well as connecting to the anonymity of the “bridge dead,” Harris’ curt reply, “there were no records kept,” substantiates the workers’ lack of recognition and absence of value in the eyes of the ethnocentric class system. However, Harris is already aware of this to an extent; he quickly realises that “what you [Patrick] are looking for is a villain,” a face for the oppressive dominant culture. This incident encapsulates the degree to which cultural groups have been affected by the ‘forces of power’ and explains Ondaatje’s belief in the need to re-evaluate history with a focus on the extensive contribution of the migrant workers.
In addition, Patrick’s view of Harris as a “villain” demonstrates his need for something tangible to hold responsible for the disempowerment and frustration of the workers. However, Patrick fails to realise that acts of aggression (in this case threatening to blow up the waterworks) will not eliminate the “systems of exploitation” because power is a metaphysical entity, underlining the nature of its complexity. Harris, perhaps because of his deep involvement with it, is conscious of this, pointing out to Patrick that “You don’t understand power…you don’t want it to exist but you move around it all the time.” Terrorism is ineffective because power cannot be located in a single individual or building, but emanates from the dominant culture in a way that is constantly shifting and changing. Ultimately Patrick decides against detonating the dynamite, as Harris recognises Patrick’s (and by extension the workers’) contribution to the development of Toronto and society as a whole. He also encourages Patrick to accept Alice’s death, to abandon her metaphorical idea that “you name the enemy and destroy the power” so as to be able to move beyond the concept that one is the enemy and the other is the victim. In this way, Ondaatje provides the notion of the resolution of class differences and his belief in the future of the working class.
Throughout the novel Ondaatje’s exploration of the nature of power and ethnocentric domination evolves as the complexity of these subjects is revealed. The importance placed on the ability to tell stories, the portrayal of capitalist corruption and exploitation, and the assertion that authoritarian power is not a physical manifestation that can be destroyed by acts of terrorism demonstrates the multifaceted way in which power can be perceived and the impact it can have on individuals. Furthermore, the portrayal of class struggles and the historical silence of marginalised groups displays Ondaatje’s view on the plight of ‘anonymous’ migrant workers. In essence, Ondaatje’s purpose in writing In the Skin of a Lion was to communicate the value he holds for the non-dominant cultural groups and his personal beliefs in regards to the effects of power, in all its forms, on society, as captured in the post-colonial and Marxist readings of three key scenes.
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