Book Review Creative Prose Musings Travel

In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje

i read a great Toronto novel and recall summer 2019 when I worked at lux events

Written July 19th

If you’re halfway literate or remotely interested in major English-language cultural products of the past 30 years, you’ve probably watched the 1996 Anthony Minghella film of Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 novel The English Patient, and it wouldn’t be surprising if you’d also read the beautiful book.

Ondaatje’s smash-hit, multi-prize winning novel about the aftermath of the Second World War and physicality and injury and regret and shame is a modern classic, and rightly so. Minghella’s film – which won a stonking NINE Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director) – is also held in similarly high esteem. Both the novel and the film are regularly cited in lists of “best” books and movies, and the characters, images and narrative threads are easy to recall, even if – like me – you last sat down and enjoyed them about a decade ago. What a lot of people don’t know (maybe that’s not the case in Canada, but I feel confident in this assertion for other locations) is that The English Patient is a sequel to an earlier novel, and the non-anonymous protagonist, Hana, and the then-thumbless thief, Caravaggio, preexisted in a different fictional text. This one: In The Skin of a Lion.

Ondaatje’s 1987 novel is absolutely fucking brilliant, but explores a far less universalised and idealised period and setting within international history. Rather than colonial Cairo, ruined central Italy and the beating Sahara, though In The Skin of a Lion does dabble occasionally with glamour, it does so by exploring the people involved in the construction of major infrastructure developments in inter-war Toronto, Canada.

Yes, this is a Canadian novel, from its core to its edges.

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Until I found myself a steady job that I was happy to have, I spent several months last year working as a waiter and bartender for high-end private catering companies.

I mixed cocktails and poured espressos in the gardens of regional construction magnates; I carried trays of hors d’oeuvres around the dinosaur exhibits of the Royal Ontario Museum for tech VPs to nibble at on weekday evenings, and then, over the Summer, I found myself regularly being driven in small cars by bitter Gen Xers to the palatial Summer homes of Toronto billionaires in the lake and forest-filled parts of Ontario an hour or two north of the city, known inaccurately and (imo grossly) as “cottage country”.

Out there, I would repeat the same actions that I performed in out-of-hours museums, in suburban mansions, in unfurnished penthouses and in skyscraping lawyers’ offices, but with gorgeous views of bodies of water with anglicised indigenous names like Simcoe and Muskoka.

Some of these events would be massive, with hundreds of waiting staff and chefs bussed in from the city, though the majority would be intimate, with a van-load of prepared food and unusually low-stress cooks hired to heat it up, as well as a small carload of people like myself to carry plates and drinks around to people who ninety per cent of the time behaved as if we were inanimate.

It’s not surprising, the way the rich treat their servants, but it is inherently and undeniably degrading and I was very glad when I was able to move on to more appropriate (I’m not being arrogant: I have two degrees, a professional TEFL qualification, experience managing a business with a seven figure turnover and I was ‘Highly Commended’ in the UK’s most prestigious poetry competition in 2019) and fulfilling work.

For some people working catering jobs through the Summer, though, that escape never happens.

The majority of the other people I worked with were in their twenties or thirties, most – like me – recent immigrants with no connections in the city and no shortcuts to better employment. A lot of them were studying, almost all of us also had other work, which we needed to do, and there was a strong sense of camaraderie because it didn’t matter how different our lives were when we weren’t serving dinner to the Torontonian gentry, all of us were dehumanised and diminished as individuals for several evenings and sometimes entire weekends every month.

This camaraderie, however, did not extend through the entire organisation[s]: pretty much everyone who was white and over forty was a nightmare.

Some of these people were the supervisors and managers who sought to emulate the tone of the catering company’s clients when speaking to the rest of the staff.

Working a job where your inherent “lower status” is so bluntly centre-stage, these people chose to funnel the contempt received by the clients towards the barely-trained, identically-dressed entry level staff.

They had been trapped, the ones who behaved like this, by years of working in this industry and had normalised the expression of status-led discrimination.

It did not occur to these people that sneering towards the largely “racialised” (please let me know if this word is inappropriate) servers they were managing, after themselves having been sneeringly ordered around by the rich, showcased a deep bitterness and a formal sense of self-hatred.

To work around the rich for decades in a subservient position would naturally have repercussions on ones sense of self, but projecting this hatred “downwards”, rather than clarifying with the underlings that the contempt for the client was shared, felt foolish to me.

These people – men and women – would scream and shout and have tantrums. They would behave like fucking little children and they would fail to instruct people how to do tasks, then become enraged when tasks had not been completed in the way they had wanted them completed.

It was a consistent and recurring problem with this work, and the main reason why I was so keen to get out of it. I can’t think of any other people I worked with as peers who weren’t nice, companionable, good people, except for the white Gen Xers who were keen to exert superiority at every opportunity. They were fucking awful.

An exception, though, was a man whose name I can’t remember, a white Gen Xer who had moved to Toronto from New York [City] for love, awww.

Unlike the Canadians of his age and demographic working as a supervisor in the catering industry, he was supportive, informative and collaborative with the rest of his staff, and able to convey the ridiculousness and extravagance of the events we were working at, without becoming unprofessional, bitter or bitchy.

“Yes,” he said, as he drove me back from a midweek barbecue hosted by a family he told me he now made sure never received female servers from the agency due to repeated misconduct several years before, “It’s not as exciting a city, but I could buy a house here without worrying about health insurance.”

The bluntness of his explanation, as well as its betrayal of “the American Dream” by achieving its aims (financial stability and property ownership) just by moving to Canada, was clearly something he had had to justify to himself. The other memorable thing he said, on that car journey, was to recommend reading Michael Ondaatje’s (“the English Patient guy, you’ve heard of that one, right?”) earlier novel, In The Skin of the Lion, because it helped him realise the complexities and the history of the city.

He was right.

I think, perhaps, the reason why In The Skin of the Lion isn’t so well-known internationally is because it is deeply rooted in Toronto.

It is about the construction of the massive Water Treatment Works in the Beaches, close to the first bar I worked in when I moved to the city, and it is about the construction of the massive Prince Edward Viaduct, which links the East and the West sides of the city over the Don River valley.

The novel is myth-building of the city; it is about infrastructure and local politics, about historic rumours and real and imagined tycoons and real and imagined activists.

It is energetic and moving, it is funny and intense. It’s a great novel, and it inspired me to cycle off to go and see the big bridge which is the setting of the opening of the novel, when a construction worker dislocates his arm by catching a falling nun.

It’s a great novel, and I realise I haven’t said much about it, but I’m out of the habit of blogging lol and need to get back into it before I can do it well again.

Also, I need some lunch.

Here are some pics of the bridge, the Prince Edward Viaduct:

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