'The first sentence of every novel should be: 'Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human,' Meander if you want to get to town.'
So says the third-person omniscient narrator in Michael Ondaatje's novel In the Skin of a Lion and after Divisadero and then Anil's Ghost I feel I'm arriving at a decision about Michael Ondaatje...he's as good as Penelope Fitzgerald and Janet Frame.
I'm not sure anyone's ever extrapolated and expounded the Sheepdog School of Literary Theory and if not it's time we made a start. I blame all that talk of sheep last week.
We had a Border Collie for seventeen years and there was no more clever and intelligent dog with a set of inbuilt instincts which he never lost, all of which I hope gives Michael Ondaatje heart that this might not be as terrible as it sounds, but it's this latest read, In the Skin of a Lion which has caused me to think.
To read this book is to be on a journey of uncertain trajectory, this is writing at a tangent, the narrative circles around indirectly, never goes directly to its destination (nor would our dog, ever). Glances hint at a bigger picture, a vast sprawling canvas which the author knows and has his eye firmly fixed on, but the reader must sift and sort. The outrun, lift, fetch and drive all perfectly executed, stray characters wander off and are nipped at the ankles and worried back into the flock, there's plenty of crossdrive and a bit of an unintentional shed as occasionally the rules of narrative shift, commands are ignored and you realise you are reading something quite quite special and this happens every single time I pick up a book by Michael Ondaatje.
'His own life was no longer a single story but part of a mural, which was a falling together of accomplices.'
In fact Michael Ondaatje frequently hints at the rules,
'All his life Patrick Lewis has lived beside novels and their clear stories. Authors accompanying their heroes clarified motives. World events raised characters from destitution. The books would conclude with all the wills rectified ad all romances solvent.'
and then the dilemma,
'Patrick never believed that characters lived only on the page.They altered when the author's eye was somewhere else. Outside the plot there was a great darkness, but there would of course be daylight elsewhere on earth. Each character had his own time zone, his own lamp, otherwise they were just men from nowhere.'
This is Toronto in the 1920s and a disparate group of people, both locals and migrants, are melded together by circumstance against the backdrop of a growing and developing city. No city comes into being without tragedy in some guise, whether it be from the loss of the land to the native people or the loss of life in the building of the structure, and it is this infrastructure that contains and supports Michael Ondaatje's characters. Life, love and tragedy played out as Patrick, born and bred into the Canadian backwoods logging community finds himself in the midst of this unknown world,
'Patrick has clung like moss to strangers, to the nooks and fissures of their situations.He has always been alien, the third person in the picture. He is the one born in this country who knows nothing of the place.'
but this is Michael Ondaatje so expect more guidance, cleverly buried, but it's in there,
'He was a watcher, a corrector. He could no more have skated along the darkness of a river than been the hero of one of these stories...each person had their moment when they assumed the skins of wild animals, when they took responsibility for the story.'
So expect great things of Patrick in the grand scheme and I wasn't disappointed and as the novel progresses, slowly but surely Michael Ondaatje, with his eye firmly fixed on the
destination,shepherds everything carefully into his pen (ahem,
unintentional pun, sorry) ...are you still with me on the Sheepdog thing ?
Don't expect the gate to shut as firmly on that pen as it would if he was obeying all commands, Michael's not that predictable and now I hear the sound of the whistle ordering me to lift and fetch, come-by and walk-up slowly to that re-read of The English Patient, because In the Skin of a Lion is the book that directly preceded it and provides an introduction to characters Hana and Caravaggio. This time around I will approach it with a far greater understanding of this man's writing than I ever thought possible.
These two books I suspect must make for a fantastic all-round reading experience, there for the double gather...as they say.