Context and Background #

This is a Canadian novel written by an immigrant originally from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) who moved to England when he was eleven and to Canada at the age of 19.  Michael Ondaatje now lives in Toronto Canada. 

Though the novel was written during the 1980’s it is set from the First World War through to the depression to the late 19 thirties and depicts the toil and torment of earlier immigrant labourers who sacrificed their lives to make Canada what it is today.  It is an amalgam of actual historical events and the author’s creative imagination.  The historical events such as the building of the Bloor Street Viaduct and the Waterworks are depicted from the perspectives of the ordinary manual workers rather than the traditional official powerful masters.   “***He who controls the narrative controls history or As Ondaatje puts it: *** “never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.”

The two main contributions described are the construction of the Bloor Street Viaduct and Bridge over the Don River Valley and the Waterworks Tunnel dug under Lake Ontario to collect water for a growing city population.  Both were built using exploited inarticulate migrant labourers escaping conditions in Europe who are powerless to protest their conditions. Any advanced civilisation is generally built up by the use of cheap labour; either slaves, lowly paid drudge toilers or sweat shop/ factory fodder, migrant labourers.

 The novel is a tribute to the unrecognised toil and tribulations of a vast number of voiceless groups of migrants documenting their pain, suffering, frustrations, feeble, futile protests yet celebrating their achievements.

The title refers to costume dressing where people can feel empowered by dressing up, in this case with the skins of noble empowered animals and come from the Epic of Gilgamesh: “I will let my hair grow long for your sake, and I will wander through the wilderness in the skin of a lion”.