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Re-Constructing the Fragments of Michael Ondaatje’s Works

Jean-Michel Lacroix

The Use and Abuse of Myth in Michael Ondaatje’s In The Skin of A Lion

Joan Dolphin


Dans In the Skin of a Lion, Ondaatje joue avec le mythe de Gilgamesh d’une manière postmoderne, utilisant son thème de l’impermanence des choses de ce monde tout en inversant ses références au mythe. L’ordre dans le monde postmoderne est, selon Ondaatje, « très faible, très humain. » On perçoit dans le roman cet ordre postmoderne à travers les images et les échos du mythe. La peau du lion change de signification : dans le mythe, elle symbolisait la douleur de Gilgamesh; dans le roman elle symbolise la narration d’histoires qui font partie de cet ordre « faible » Certaines associations marginales montrent au lecteur à quel point le mythe correspond aux critères d'un texte post-moderme : ce n’est pas un mythe du canon ; les tablettes sur lesquelles il est inscrit sont parfois brisées, l’écriture cunéiforme est pleine d’ambiguïtés et l’histoire qu’elles racontent est constituée d’une variété d’histoires plus ou moins apparentées.

Texte intégral

1In many ways the postmodern is a continuation of the modem; both involve diegetic fragmentation and nonlinearity, shifting points of view. David Lodge says the postmodern “shares the modernist commitment to innovation, but pursues [its] aims by methods of its own. It tries to go beyond modernism, or around it, or undemeath it... (220). One way to do this is to use and abuse myth. T.S.Eliot identified modernist use of myth as “a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history” (Ellmann 681). Postmodern use questions this controlling venture, regarding with scepticism and irony the modernist desire to believe in the ultimate validity — the absolute truth — embedded in the myth.

2Myth does not usually constitute a vital ingredient in postmodern fiction for the obvious reason that order and shape are no longer viable ends. Indeed, order and shape, if not totally eschewed, are constantly realigned, and an y order that does emerge is, as Ondaatje says, “very faint, very human” (ISL 146). In light of this, one might well ask why Ondaatje, in the novel under discussion, so specifically refers to the myth of Gilgamesh in both title and epigraph, and subsequently quotes from it — devices that one would expect to find in a modernist text. Why he does this and how his use of this uncanonical myth subverts modernist practice will be the subject of this paper.

3Undoubtedly Ondaatje is interested in myth. Besides using a legendary figure in both Corning Through Slaughter and in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, more than a decade before he published In the Skin of a Lion he wrote a commentary on O’Hagan’s Tay John in which he foregrounds the “raw power of myth” (24), noting that although O’Hagan uses myth as a basis for only a few scenes, its power is pervasive because of a “very careful use of echoes — of phrases and images” (25), only two or three of which are necessary to sustain the connection. He adds: “Myth breeds on itself no matter what the situation or landscape” (26).

4Here we see the theoretical genesis of Ondaatje’s imagistic and postmodern use of the Gilgamesh myth in In the Skin of a Lion. The landscape in this case is Toronto in the first third of the twentieth century. The setting in Gilgamesh is vastly different. Gilgamesh takes place in and around the ancient Babylonian city of Uruk, over which Gilgamesh rules selfishly and despotically. The gods respond to the citizens’ complaints by fashioning a male companion for Gilgamesh, a wild opposite, named Enkidu, who is introduced to the ways of civilization by a prostitute. After a fight, Gilgamesh and Enkidu become close companions and plan a heroic quest which involves overcoming the evil Humbaba. Their success leads to a second escapade and their resultant pride is punished by Enkidu’s death. In his grief over his friend’s death, Gilgamesh dons a lion’s skin and sets out on a quest to find the meaning of death. He shoots arrows to kill and scatter some lions and travels through a mountain and across water to find Utnapishtim, the sole survivor of the flood, who now enjoys everlasting life. Utnapishtim’s lesson is that there is no permanence, a lesson Gilgamesh forcefully learns when he loses the branch of life that he has sought; he returns to Uruk “a sadder and a wiser man.”

5Ondaatje does not use the story of Gilgamesh as a framework of order; he uses only echoes, phrases and images — the lion’s skin, Gilgamesh’s grief and quests, the arrow. These echoes remind the reader of the myth and provide a thematic subtext; this is the use Ondaatje makes of the myth. Yet he also abuses it by frequently turning it upside-down and picking and choosing among the images he uses. I believe Ondaatje takes this specific myth for two reasons: the physical State of Gilgamesh as we know it today is comprised of rather fragmented tablets, containing an amalgam of different Gilgamesh stories, and the lesson of impermanence and other aspects of the Gilgamesh story, such as the donning of the lion’s skin, lend themselves easily to postmodern use.

6The physical State of the Gilgamesh text and its amalgam of stories are perhaps peripheral to In the Skin of a Lion; nevertheless, they underline rather nicely postmodern concerns with fragmented narratives and the lack of any ordered permanence, or, as Ondaatje puts it, the realignment rather than the ordering of “the detritus and chaos of the world” (145), a realignment which is constantly shifting, is impermanent.

7The first-found and most complete tablets have been dated as the most recent (seventh century BCE); these twelve tablets from the ruins of the palace of Nineveh were soon discovered to be a copy of an older version; they are apparently, in part, a free translation from “available paraphrases” (Tigay 242), where plots have been combined, new episodes included, and the focus has been shifted. This palimpsest of stories, translations, paraphrases and gatherings thus provides an ideal subtext for a postmodern novel, especially one which begins with a girl who “gathers” a story from a man “as he picks up and brings together various corners of the story attempting to carry it all in his arms” on the way to Marmora, Ontario.

8Throughout the novel, Ondaatje gathers and brings together Patrick’s story much in the same way as the pieces of the Gilgamesh story have been gathered and put together on their passage through the millennia; in both, the written and the oral have merged, and both include episodes from varied sources. In the novel we find not only a variety of stories, but also popular songs, structural details of two building projects, newspaper reports, and letters from a union leader. In both, stories have been translated. In the epic, cuneiform characters have been first transliterated and then translated. In the novel, tales of a new life in Canada have been translated from modem Macedonian, and foreign names have been changed to facilitate English usage. Thus in many ways the makeup of In the Skin of a Lion resembles that of Gilgamesh as we know it today.

9Other interesting, and postmodern, similarities can be observed. Many of the tablets that have been discovered are broken, thus, fragmenting the text. Broken edges tend to crumble, impeding easy interpretation. Another problem for translators is the difficult nature of cuneiform script. Cuneiform writing combines different wedge-shaped marks, where words are only sometimes separated by spaces, and where a sign may refer to “as many as sixteen different words, with a great variety of meanings” (Gardner and Maier 8). The same script was used for both the Akkadian and Sumerian languages, and its form changed considerably over 3000 years. These instabilities associated with the tablets add to the appropriateness of this myth to a postmodern novel.

10Moreover, historical facts and personages in the myth of Gilgamesh are used in recognizably postmodern ways. Obviously, the intention of the many “authors” of Gilgamesh was simply to tell a tale about a historical hero. But time has caused historical fact and fiction to merge. Ondaatje both uses and abuses such characters, giving the reader a fictional hero and an unofficial history of the unsung, yet historical, workers on the two projects around which this novel is focused, those workers for whom “There was no record kept” (236), whose only presence in archive photographs is as “a blur of intent” (24). There are unsung workers in Gilgamesh, too; the glory of the walls of Uruk belongs to Gilgamesh, not to those who slaved on them: “There was no record kept” for them either. Nor is there much record of those whom Gilgamesh fights in battle or those women with whom he insists on first-night privileges. Like the architect Harris, but particularly like the millionaire Ambrose Small, Gilgamesh is an historical figure whose stories “are so overlaid with legendary and mythical motifs that one can only speculate about their historical basis” (Tigay 241). Such speculation and admixture of the real and the fictional is the stuff of the postmodern.

11The modern English text of Gilgamesh exists in different versions. There are scholarly editions which provide a tablet-by-tablet text, showing all the gaps, using brackets for doubtful words and including lengthy notes, leaving what N.K.Sandars calls something “rather like an unfinished crossword puzzle” (49). Then there is the version that Sandars produced which attempts to give the reader a “straightforward narrative” (49), relying on the scholarly editions for what is added and omitted, for his sequence and reorganization of events. In the introduction to their scholarly edition, Gardner and Maier validate their interest in the fragmented rather than the “straightforward” version because,

as is the case with many traditional stories... the pleasure lies not so much in the plot but in the smaller segments that make up the whole” (vii). The format of In the Skin of a Lion reflects this pleasure in segments, while, at the same time, it provides a more or less “straightforward narrative

12Let us now investigate how Ondaatje deals with this myth and its theme of impermanence in a postmodern way. Gilgamesh learns the lesson of impermanence from Utnapishtim who tells him: ‘“There is no permanence. Do we build a house to stand for ever, do we seal a contract to hold for all time? Do brothers divide an inheritance to keep forever, does the flood-time of rivers endure?’” (Sandars 104) Although Gilgamesh returns to Uruk as king, he has learnt that he cannot achieve everlasting life, that he must dwell in the realm of the impermanent. In the novel, Patrick’s lesson about impermanence is learnt gradually until, on the way to set fire to the Muskoka Hotel, Patrick comes to the realization that “Only a dead name is permanent” (165). However his lesson begins after the performance at the unfinished waterworks when his “mind skates across old conversations. The past drifts into the air like an oasis and he watches himself within it.” He recalls “the way Clara dissolved and suddenly disappeared from him, or the way Alice came to him... in a series of masks...” (128). Then, after discovering who Alice really is, he encounters a Street band whose melodies chase each other to become metaphors for change and realignment. By this time the chronological romances he enjoyed as a child have given way to the less rigid “fragments of memory [where] we can retract from the grand story and stumble accidentally upon a luxury... those few pages in a book we can go back and forth over” (148). What Patrick, at one point in his life, would like to think of as a permanent relationship with Clara shifts to a relationship with Alice and then to one with both Clara and Hana. Patrick will not engrave this shifting, impermanent story on a stone tablet as Gilgamesh does his; however, we have seen how impermanent even stones can be.

13Nevertheless, suggestions of the modernist use of myth can be identified in In the Skin of a Lion. A quotation from the epic does provide both title and epigraph. As well, various characters in the narrative are associated with Gilgamesh, his friend, Enkidu, and some of the minor characters. In addition, the novel begins as if it were going to follow the modernist mythic/epic journey of the hero to self-discovery. In her article in Studies in Canadian Literature, Carol Beran proposes to show that the use of marginalized characters and a “relatively unfamiliar Babylonian epic” (81) identifies In the Skin of a Lion as “ex-centric,” though her conclusion that, like Barometer Rising, In the Skin of a Lion points “towards the reestablishment of ‘peace, order, and good government’” (81) seems to identify In the Skin of a Lion, along with Barometer Rising, as a modernist text. Her juxtaposition of these two novels underlines this conclusion. The main similarities she identifies are Patrick’s and Gilgamesh’s quests, their both being ferried across water, telling their stories and then falling into a deep sleep. She equates Gilgamesh’s sense of “self-preservation and anger” (75) that initiate his fighting the lions with Patrick’s attempt on Harris’ life and subsequent success in that Harris must recognize the power and importance of the ordinary worker. This, she claims, “now identifies] Patrick as a hero” (76). Yet, I believe that the similarities Beran identifies can be seen in a quite different light.

14Although the novel begins as if it were going to be a journey of self-discovery, these modernist methods are soon subverted. After only eighteen pages, when Patrick is twelve years old, the narrative abruptly shifts from rural northern Ontario and Patrick’s story to Toronto where we find Nicholas and other immigrant workers building the Bloor Street Viaduct. We return to Patrick’s story only as he arrives in Toronto. In a sense, Ondaatje splits the Gilgamesh references between Patrick and Nicholas. Indeed, Nicholas’ actions in rescuing the nun who is blown off the bridge are more “heroic” than anything Patrick achieves, yet the two characters are connected by their work on two major construction projects and by their affection for, and care of, Alice and her daughter, Hana.

15Patrick is most obviously identified with Gilgamesh in his quest for the meaning of his friend’s death. Yet even here things are skewed, since the lion skin Gilgamesh dons in his grief at the beginning of his heroic journey does not serve the same purpose in the novel. Ondaatje uses the reference in two new and distinct ways. It is not Patrick who dons the skin in an almost literal way; it is the dyers in the tanneries who do that. In the vats, they acquire the “skin,” of the dye whose smell never leaves them, although they shed the actual colour in the showers at the end of the day. They can certainly shed the colours more easily than either Patrick or Gilgamesh can shed his grief, yet the misery of their working conditions stays with them day after day. Two references to Patrick donning a metaphorical “skin” precede Alice’s death; both identify his growing sense of community, not his isolation in grief. In the cutting room of the tannery, Patrick, like his fellow-workers, is immersed in the smell of the skins; however, even earlier, working in the intake pipe of the waterworks he is surrounded by clay that clings to him and his clothes. This clay dries, making his clothes into a kind of outer skin. But the reference to clay isn’t without its counterpart in the epic: the claypits surrounding Uruk (Gardner and Maier 57, 250) must have been used to build its brick walls, and must have clung to the clothing of the ancient workers as well. Later, after Alice’s death, Patrick is covered with grease before entering the intake pipe, but here, in what could be taken as his quest for the meaning of his friend’s death, there is no implication that he is donning this “skin” out of grief in the way of Gilgamesh who lets his “hair grow long for [Enkidu’s] sake.... and wander[s] through the wilderness in the skin of a lion” (93). In these examples Ondaatje twists the references, applying them to political and social issues. After Alice’s death there is no reference to any grief-stricken donning of a lion’s, or any other, skin, although Patrick’s grief does lead him to follow in Alice’s footsteps in his revolutionary acts. Perhaps, in a metaphorical sense, then, he puts on Alice’s skin, but there is no overt reference to this in the text.

16But animal skins play another even more important and postmodern role. They represent the ever-changing stories that make up the text of our postmodern lives. Alice makes the connection between telling stories and donning animal skins. In describing a play she tells Patrick of the “powerful matriarch [who] removed her large coat from which animal pelts dangled” (157), and who then passed it to a minor character so that “[e]ach person had their moment when they assumed the skins of wild animals, when they took responsibility for the story” (157). Patrick dons this metaphorical skin three times: first when he passes on the story of Alice and the nun to Nicholas, again when he unburdens himself to Harris at the end, and both initially and finally when he tells his story to Hana in the car.

17Gilgamesh is a builder of cities. Although Patrick works on the construction of the water purification plant, much of his job there is involved with dynamiting. It is Nicholas who is the real builder of cities. On two occasions Patrick attempts to destroy buildings, putting him in a position that subverts his connection with Gilgamesh. Nor is Patrick either a king or a central figure of any kind. At the beginning, Gilgamesh recklessly pursues heroism; Patrick rarely does. At the end of the epic, Gilgamesh returns to his city, and Patrick drives to Marmora; these and others are “anti-connections” or misalliances with the epic.

18Other misalliances also skew the tighter modernist connection between text and myth. Alongside his early association with Gilgamesh, Nicholas, whose rescue of Alice effects her change from being a nun to a revolutionary, can be seen as the prostitute who prepares Enkidu’s entrance into the city. Clara herself shares this role, easing Patrick’s move to the city, and shifting Patrick into the role of Enkidu. But in her relationship with Patrick, Clara also resembles Enkidu, although Alice always remains the major connection here. However, in yet another echo of the myth, Clara can be seen as the goddess who shapes Enkidu fully grown from the earth. As he leaves the farmhouse, Patrick thinks of Alice “as if [she] being touched by Clara has grown magically, fully formed” (78).

19Alice herself is an upside-down reincarnation of Enkidu, in spite of the fact that her death causes Patrick great grief and precipitates his quest. First there is a gender shift. Enkidu initially appears as a wild man with long hair, but Alice first appears as a nun — the other end of the scale from the longhaired wild man — her hair cropped under her wimple. Enkidu is transformed into a civilized man. Alice moves from the realm of the highly civilized to that of the revolutionary. When she takes her first name from the parrot in the Ohrida Lake Restaurant and her second from another species of bird — the gull — she associates herself closely with the animal kingdom. Add to this her role as a human puppet in the unfinished waterworks building. One critic has connected her wildness in this scene with the “ferocious” (Sandars 64)Humbaba, slain symbolically on stage by Patrick (Gamlin 75).

20Other misalliances abound. Perhaps the Wise Old Man figure of the underworld — Utnapishtim in the epic — is, as Beran suggests, Roland Harris, with whom Patrick talks at the end, and before whom, like Gilgamesh, he falls asleep. However, it seems to me that the real candidate for this position is Hana who guides Patrick to his discovery about Alice’s past and thus to his donning of the metaphorical lion’s skin and shooting the first story arrow in Nicholas’ direction. Carol Beran connects Carravagio with the oarsman Urshanabi and Patrick’s sleep with Gilgamesh’s; this is true, but the story in the epic is told by Utnapishtim not Gilgamesh, and in the novel the story is told by Patrick. In all these splittings and realignments of the mythical associations, Ondaatje abuses the myth to underline the postmodern lack of permanence and order.

21Events and sequences in the plot are also realigned. Patrick does set out on a quest after his friend’s death; he does approach his goal by water and through a dark passage. However, Ondaatje reverses the order of these events. Patrick’s arm is broken; Gilgamesh’s hand is only scratched, though Enkidu’s arm is more seriously hurt earlier. Patrick does not set out on his final quest with the aim of gaining everlasting life. At the end of the novel, Harris identifies Patrick rather ironically with Gilgamesh by a direct quotation from the epic. However, Gordon Gamlin correctly points out the omission of part of that quotation, the destructive part. Harris’ quotation ends with Gilgamesh falling on the lions “like an arrow from the string” (Ondaatje 242, Sandars 94). Harris does not need to use the rest of the sentence where Gilgamesh “struck and destroyed and scattered them” (94). As Gamlin asserts, Patrick’s “arrows connect” (76) instead of killing and scattering. One important arrow of connection goes in the direction of Nicholas, one rescues Caravaggio from an attacker in jail, another seems to reach out to Harris, and others connect with Hana and Clara. Again we have echoes and images of myth taking root in a changed landscape, while, at the same time, the twists and inversions subvert any total mythical shape.

22Let me return for a moment to Ondaatje’s article on O’Hagan and his considerable faith in what he calls the “raw power of myth” (24). In In the Skin of a Lion, the “raw power” of Gilgamesh comes through most significantly in its unconventional theme of impermanence. Utnapishtim’s poignant, and postmodern, answer to Gilgamesh’s question about everlasting life quoted earlier rings through In the Skin of a Lion. Things are impermanent; stories change, take on new meanings, especially when people make connections with other people, like the threads of the melody Patrick overhears that chase each other and then fall together, so that Patrick’s “own life was no longer a single story but part of a mural, a falling together of accomplices... a wondrous night web.... [where] the detritus and chaos of the age was realigned” (145). I believe this is Ondaatje’s postmodern realignment of Eliot’s statement about myth: myth can no longer order or control. The few images that Ondaatje incorporates from this unconventional, uncanonical myth are the paths through which he invites us to “meander” towards the “very faint, very human” (146) order that is to be found in what Simone Vautier has called his “fragmented and multiplistic epic for our times” (87).

23While the cyclical structure of In the Skin of a Lion suggests the closure of a modernist text, the return here isn’t to the beginning, but to an altered beginning; the journey is the same one, but this time Patrick is not driving, Hana is. Absolute permanence is not found here — only the tentative kind of permanence that has given us incomplete tablets, from which a story can be realigned. Like the epic, the novel has gaps to be filled in by the reader; it is a story made up of many elements, the kind of story that must be “gathered” as its “various corners” are brought together.

24Thus, the tablets and theme of the Gilgamesh epic identify it as an appropriate subtext for a postmodern novel, one which enables Ondaatje to “go beyond... around... [and] underneath” the modernist use of myth, to use and abuse it. Knowing the myth of Gilgamesh, doesn’t tell us what the novel means, but recognizing its echoes will help us sense more significantly how it means for our fragmented, non-linear lives. Ondaatje’s arrows (the images and echoes) connect for us, too, in our postmodern world, much more than by a modernist use of myth with commensurate belief in its validity. The postmodern world requires that we get our satisfaction from “raw” connections only. Instead of using myth to structure the novel and its vision of the world, Ondaatje uses it to underline the fragmentation and impermanence of our world, a world where only a very faint order can be found, one that involves a palimpsest of different, impermanent, versions of a story such as those found on the Gilgamesh tablets.


Works Cited

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Teaches Canadian, Commonwealth, and children's literature at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Canada, and has published on Patrick White.

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