Characters In the Skin of a Lion #
We must remember that character creation is a construct; an artefact and central ones do not necessarily represent the author. Characters are either portrayed sympathetically or unsympathetically. The former are called protagonists, heroes or good guys while the latter are antagonists, villains or bad guys. Sometimes main characters are picaresque – likeable but harmless rogues, larrikins or scoundrels –“loveable rogues”.
Martin Amis points out that over two millennia humans first told stories of Gods, then Kings, then Epic Heroes, then ordinary people , then anti-heroes, then villains, then demons and finally themselves.
Patrick Lewis – The central character, though much of the novel is seen through the perspective of other characters. The narrative traces Patrick’s life from his youth on a remote farm in rural Ontario. His impression of Finnish lumberjacks resonates for the rest of his life and is revived when Alice recounts the life of Cato, a Union organiser. Ambrose Small and Clara later hide here. Patrick moves to Toronto in the 1920’s where he is employed by disgruntled investors to find the fugitive millionaire Ambrose Small. It is through meeting and falling in love with Clara Dickens that Patrick is transformed and integrated from an insular deprived country boy without a mother into wider society including the feminine. Patrick is a prism through which we see the rest of the characters.
Nicholas Temelecoff- a dare-devil rigger on the bridge, Temelecoff, originally from Macedonia, migrated to Canada under dire conditions during WWI, worked in a bakery while determinedly learning the language. Besides representing the dogged persistence of the migrants, Temelecoff demonstrates their success that is seldom recognised let alone celebrated. Temelecoff’s contribution to the narrative is his rescue of the nun – later Alice Gull and his caring for Hana during the five years Patrick serves his sentence for the firebomb attack on the Muskoka Hotel.
Alice Gull - A former Nun, Alicia, who was swept off the Bloor Street Bridge, whose body was never recovered. Her fall is coincidentally and fortuitously intercepted by Temelecoff. Alice assumes a new identity, is a good friend with Clara, becomes an actress, meets Cato, gives birth to Hana, shares her life with Patrick but finally accidentally and tragically dies from dynamite with a timing device, because she picks up the wrong bag. Alice uses her disappearance to shape a new secular and political identity of caring for the disadvantaged. Her brand of Marxist ideology may be narrow, doctrinaire and misguided but she is instrumental in socialising and politicising Patrick through her warmth and concern for humanity.
Clara Dickens - A friend of Ambrose Small – Patrick’s first love. She teaches Patrick to talk, and give of himself. She corresponds to the priestess of the Goddess of Love, a sacred prostitute, who in the Epic of Gilgamesh offers herself to Enkidu, and tames him that way. This young priestess whose name is Shamhat, offers herself to Enkidu, a wild brutalised man, and they make love continuously for seven days. Enkidu is transformed by that experience, and becomes socialised, humanised and empathetic –much like Patrick.
It’s a kind of anti-Garden of Eden story, or the opposite of that, where
instead of sexuality being a fall, it’s an initiation into what it means
to be human.
Both Clara and Alice Gull draw Patrick out of his taciturn shell and help him to connect with people.
Ambrose Small – represents “bare-knuckled capitalism”, and has power because of his ill-gotten money. Patrick has been hired by a group of disgruntled swindled shareholders to find him. During his search he meets the radio actor Clara Dickens, 21. Ambrose, 35, is Clara Dickens ‘sugar daddy’ and she eventually leaves Patrick to take care of him. ***“In the tenth century, he liked to say, the price of a greyhound or a hawk was the same as that of a man”. Patrick eventually does find Small and Clara hiding near Depot Creek, the town of his youth, but his loyalty to Clara prevents him from exposing them. ***When Ambrose dies a lonely death, Clara calls Patrick to come and get her from Marmora.
Cato – a cameo character we never see but meet through the reminiscences of Alice and his letters to her. Cato re-connects Patrick to his childhood days of watching the Finnish lumberjacks from his windows as on their way to work they warm their hands on the flanks of the cows being herded for milking. Cato also represents the agitation of the emerging union movement as they fight for better working conditions. Because he is a trouble maker, Cato is disposed of by vested interests. Cato’s story is told to us indirectly through Alice. Cato is Hana’s biological father though he dies before she is born.
Caravaggio - An allusion to the famous Italian painter – who lived from 1571- 1610 and was renown for his creative output but also his dissolute and riotous life style. The original Caravaggio was noted for his play on light and dark; he was one of the first to introduce the shadows of his characters into his paintings, just like Ondaatje likes to play with light and darkness; his Caravaggio trains in the dark. Patrick meets Caravaggio in prison and yells out for the guards when Caravaggio is attacked. Caravaggio escapes by being painted sky blue. The two later become accomplices in the attempted attack on the Waterworks.
Hana – The daughter of Alice Gull and Cato, though she is born after Cato is brutally murdered. Patrick becomes her foster father after Alice dies and it is to her that he tells the story of the novel, on a four hour drive to pick up Clara Dickens.
Rowland Harris - Commissioner of Public Works: A dominant character but mostly in the background. Our initial impression is of a man devoid of humanity who has grandiose designs of marble walls, Sienna tiles, Byzantine gates and ego driven visions, however when we finally get to meet him at the end, his compassion, empathy and magnanimity emerges as he understands Patrick’s psychological and social pain and instead of calling for the police, asks for a nurse and medical supplies. He realises Patrick merely masquerades as a lion, as he has genuine grievances that should be addressed.
“The form of a city changes faster than the heart of a mortal”, Harris liked to remind his critics, quoting Baudelaire (Pg. 109)