Producing ideas of Benedict Anderson’s ‘kinship’ in Michael Ondaatje’s
In the Skin of a Lion

Benedict Anderson’s call for the de-hypostasization of ‘Nationalism-with-a-big-N’ transposes nationalism from an objectified entity into the realm of imaginative possibilities.1 Anderson proposes to redefine the concept of the nation as an ‘imagined political community’ rather than its often ‘concrete manifestations’ which lead to a limiting classification of ‘it’ as an ideology.2 He therefore suggests the treatment of nationalism (to less bound concepts) ‘as if it belonged with ‘kinship’ and ‘religion’, rather than more defined ideologies such as with ‘liberalism’ and ‘fascism’.’ In that sense, Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, a novel that follows the character Patrick Lewis’ immersion into the history of Toronto and into the lives of those he encounters there, produces a similar sentiment of Anderson’s association of nationalism with ‘kinship’ by releasing this ideology from its reified existence and reworking its various modes of operation.3 From these two introductory propositions, this discussion imagines the disintegration of this solid state of nationalism and kinship as paralleled in the disintegration of the body’s boundaries in the novel.

In the novel, Ondaatje attempts to mediate established definitions of kinship. The reader is presented with a breakdown of both the social and biological structures that have previously constituted it, such as kinship’s normative predication on blood. Instead, the narrative seeks to experiment with the ‘elastic boundaries’ of kinship, by imagining a new kind of affiliative kinship, established through connective experiences or chance encounters.4 In this realm of imagination, the boundaries set up by power structures such as gender, ethnicity and class are temporarily dissolved. By envisaging the protagonist Patrick’s body as a prism, Ondaatje refracts and redirects normative social connections, thereby creating new ideas of kinship as a form of social connectivity. The character of Patrick functions as a device to ‘produce’ representative rather than literal forms of kinship, something that is played out in the trajectories of the working class characters. They are objectified tools for constructing emblems of national kinship rather than beneficiaries of the end ‘product’. Lion sheds light on the figures veiled by darkness, where loss of demarcation becomes as problematic as it is liberating. By dissolving ethnic discrepancies, the character of Patrick is able to permeate Macedonian immigrant culture and perform a role as a representative proxy for this community. However, although such ideas of affiliative kinship give hope for a more inclusive sense of community, Ondaatje frustrates this possibility by illuminating how such a union diminishes a sense of individual agency. Ultimately, the changeability of the body social in its refusal to settle as a unified entity (both literally and theoretically) reflects the difficulty of imagining the nation as a whole. Perhaps by acknowledging bodies as potentially morphing entities, Ondaatje implies that the evolutionary process of kinship is continually in ‘production’. Thus the mutable, osmotic and refracted state of the ‘nation’ defines the difficulty of finding a universal ‘kinship’ to suit all.

George Elliott Clarke observes how Ondaatje’s use of myth recounts ‘the story of mutability—the tendency of matter to become something other than what it first appears to be.’5 If Lion is read as a commentary on the mutable idea of kinship, then this concept of matter changing from ‘what it appears to be’ depicts connections that are not necessarily constituted by the more literal qualifier, blood. A form of social refraction appears to take place in the novel, as the empirical classification of social groups trumps the normative categorisation of genealogy and gender. Patrick’s social ‘matter’ is therefore used as a refractive prism to re-direct and multiply the visible social strata of kinship.6 Take for example, the manner in which Clara and Alice later remould the appearance of Patrick’s body by drawing his head ‘leaking purple or yellow’ (Lion, p.79), visualising this image of his body as prism through its connection to white light’s refraction, thus producing a spectrum of colours. In free indirect discourse (a mode in which attribution is obscured), Patrick or the narrator iterates such an idea by portraying an associative kinship between ‘Clara and Ambrose and Alice and Temelcoff and Cato— this cluster made up a drama in his absence. And he himself was nothing but a prism that refracted their lives’ (Lion, p.163). Here there is a form of inter-relational kinship at play, as shown via the sexual partners’ imbrications; the passage in its entirety imagines a kind of theoretical orgy of ideals, such as the ostensible kinship between politically dichotomous Temelcloff, the Macedonian immigrant, and Cato, the staunch activist. This perfunctory ordering of characters connected by the identically placed ‘and’ between each of them indicates a shift away from hierarchical social structures, thus implying that kinship is now imagined as relational and horizontal rather than vertical: literary levelling is taking place.

  1. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso Editions, 1983), p.15. []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion. (London: Picador, 1988). Henceforth Lion. []
  4. Anderson, Imagined Communities, p.16. []
  5. George Elliott Clarke, ‘Michael Ondaatje and the Production of Myth’, Studies in Canadian Literature, V.16.1 (Ontario: Essays on Canadian Writing Ltd, 1991), p. 2. []
  6. Elliot Clarke, ‘Michael Ondaatje and the Production of Myth’, p. 2. []

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