IN THE SKIN OF A LION By Michael Ondaatje Knopf. 243 pp. $16.95
LANGUAGE might seem to be the central concern of Michael Ondaatje's romantic novel set in Eastern Canada in the 1920s and '30s. In The Skin of a Lion is written, perhaps sometimes overwritten, perhaps sometimes overwrought. Although it makes concessions to telling a story, the story tends to emerge through a collage of images and vignettes, like a puzzle offering itself to us in seemingly unrelated pieces. The wonder is that it all comes together in the end, achieving coherent form.
The story Ondaatje tells seems emblematic -- the history (or mythology) of a time through the significant events of a man's life. The man, Patrick Lewis ("privacy was the only weight he carried"), grows up, the son of a dynamiter, in the Canadian backwoods and moves to Toronto at the age of 21. In his temporary job as a "searcher" for the disappeared (thought dead) millionaire, Ambrose Small, Patrick meets Small's mistress, the radio actress Carla Dickens, and falls in love with her. They have an affair that marks Patrick indelibly and Clara leaves him to return to Small. Their relationship is only postponed, however, never severed. Before going, she makes Patrick a gift of her pet iguana, a piece of herself as hostage to her absence.
Clara, in a sense, also passes on to Patrick a replacement, her friend Alice Gull, who is also an actress. Fortuitous destiny governs Ondaatje's invented real world. Two years after Clara's desertion Alice shows up at his door. "She had come that day, he thought later, not for passion, but to save him, to veer him to some reality." Before he can be with Alice, however, he has to perform a necessary exorcism by removing Clara's "shadow" from his life.
Events are telescoped. We learn of Alice's death while she is still alive and Patrick's lover. We learn of Patrick's imprisonment while he is still free and taking refuge in the Garden of the Blind. The novel is told -- ostensibly told -- after the fact of its action. The effect is twofold: it makes us concerned with the process of an event and not the result; and it gives us a sense of uncovering a history already written.
ONDAATJE mixes the personal with the mythic-historical. Patrick, whose metaphorical job is always that of searcher, whose reckless bravery at the end occasions the title, participates both in the making of civilization and in an abortive revolution that means to bring it down. Although not an ideologue, he becomes involved in a plot to dynamite the very waterworks he worked to build.
As a synopsis suggests, In the Skin of a Lion has the scope and wealth of incident of a popular novel (the story of the end of an era and the two mysterious women -- both actresses -- who shaped our hero's life) and the destiny and texture of a prose poem. The outer world and the under skin tend to merge. Events prophesy one another. The social becomes a metaphoric extension of the personal.
Like Ondaatje's earlier work, Coming Through Slaughter and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, this is a novel of expressive fragments. Two of the book's most remarkable chapters deal with relatively minor characters. In one, the daredevil Nicholas Temelcoff, who prefigures Patrick's heroism, catches a nun who falls off a bridge in a high wind, saving her life (she in turn saves him). The intimacy of the rescue has profound consequences for both of them, and the nun shows up in different guise later in the novel, to become an important figure in Patrick's life.
In another inspired episode, the thief Caravaggio, by being painted blue, becomes invisible against the blue roof of his prison, which makes possible his escape. Still partly blue, Caravaggio takes refuge in a deserted summer cottage and haunts the night like some ghostly clown.
Although concerned with language, In the Skin of a Lion is fully articulated as a novel. What impresses me most is how Ondaatje brings together the diverse elements of his story into a moving and coherent whole. The book's power arises from its language certainly, but also and perhaps mostly from the surprise of its form. "I feel she's loaned to me," Alice Gull says about her daughter, Hana, to whom Patrick tells the book's story. "We're veiled in flesh." This novel is full of mysterious intuitive language, which like Clara's shadow in Patrick's life, stays with us inescapably.
Jonathan Baumbach, director of the MFA writing program at Brooklyn College, is the author of "Reruns", "Babble" and the recently published "The Life and Times of Major Fiction."