Language and Immigration in Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion

by Philip Swieton
August 29, 2022

Michael Ondaatje's novel In the Skin of a Lion, published in 1987, is a fictional reimagining of Toronto's construction in the early 1900s, most notably of the prominent role that immigrants occupied in building the Prince Edward Viaduct and the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant. The novel takes a special interest in the process of learning English as an immigrant — namely, how the workers concurrently construct from scratch a new infrastructure for the city and a new language for themselves. Their lack of an English voice, among other social factors, disenfranchises these workers from being given their due credit: though they have built structures that have since gained cultural significance in Toronto, the workers have been largely forgotten in the city's history. In the Skin of a Lion, therefore, casts light on the ways that linguistic strains have curtailed the stories of immigrant workers that helped create the Toronto of today.

To Harris, Nicholas is a valuable means to carrying out his vision, and it is Harris' legacy that will benefit from Nicholas' linguistic limitations.

Nicholas Temelcoff is one such worker on the Prince Edward Viaduct. An immigrant from Macedonia, he is the bridge's daredevil: he swings, free falls, does those acrobatics no other bridge worker has the audacity to do. Precarious as this work is, Nicholas does it effortlessly; he instead strains over learning his English. As he manoeuvres around the site, he can be seen "breaking down syllables and walking around them as if laying the clauses out like tackle on a pavement to be checked for worthiness, picking up one he fancies for a moment then replacing it with another". Here, it is his manual labour which becomes his primary point of reference. Language, something otherwise taken for granted as foundational and elementary, becomes the strenuous work. As Ondaatje writes of Nicholas, "language was much more difficult than what he does in space". While his work on the bridge is the most valuable of the site's workers, Nicholas' difficulty with English makes his mannerisms seem reclusive and his intonations high-strung; his manual labour speaks for him more than he can for himself.

Nicholas' antisocial demeanour as a result of his language barriers demonstrates a struggle to integrate into a culture to which he is contributing. This is of little concern to others — least of all to the overseer of the project, Commissioner Harris. The Commissioner has a vision for his project and his city, and he takes a vested but distant interest in Nicholas. To Harris, Nicholas is a valuable means to carrying out his vision, and it is Harris' legacy that will benefit from Nicholas' linguistic limitations. He depends on workers whose differences will prevent them from working elsewhere. Where Ondaatje has set the analogy between the construction of the city and the construction of one's language, immigrants like Nicholas were only encouraged in the former.

On top of the natural limitations of learning a second language, bureaucratic limitations also suppressed immigrant voices in Toronto's history. Ondaatje is diligent in researching the language policies of the time: in the 1930s, suspicions of foreigners led to the enactment of a policy that forbid any language other than English to be spoken in public meetings in Toronto, at the threat of jail. In the novel (as was no doubt the case historically), this leads to the immigrants' conversations being forced behind closed doors and into underground meetings - a way of further precluding foreigners from participating in public culture.

In the Skin of a Lion illuminates the social landscape of a Toronto wherein immigrants are welcomed only in specific capacities — those of convenience to the city's broader goals. Otherwise, their voice is suppressed on all sides; they are silenced by their own limitations and by those that their society imposes on them. The novel resists a hegemonic narrative of Toronto's history, instead lucidly imagining the voices of those who lacked the linguistic means to have one. In doing so, In the Skin of a Lion fulfills the prophecy in its foreword, quoted from John Berger: "Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one".