by Diallo Djerry
The life of immigrant workers and the question of identity
Canadian society is divided into two categories of citizens: the native people also called first nations people, and the immigrant population who after their settlement worked as laborers and businessmen. In the 19th century most of the immigrants were English and Irish settlers who started carrying on their businesses that attracted many other ordinary workers. And at the beginning of the 20th century, immigrants flowed in from several European countries, such as Italy, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Poland among others; in search of new opportunities and a better life.
In this paper, I will firstly, focus on the life of an immigrant family from England; a family of artists and businessmen whose greed leads to their downfall and scars the landscape, and the life of immigrant laborers who invest their energy in the construction of Toronto to see how they acquire their identities.
Finally, I will then address the question of identity of Patrick Lewis, Ondaatje's main protagonist who moves from the countryside to the city where he starts searching for his identity - how does he gain his identity and what kind of identity is it; and I will look at the connection and contrast between the two references: Jane Urquhart's A Map of Glass and Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion.
Urquhart's novel, A Map of Glass tells the story of Woodmans' business empire after Mr. Woodman migrates to Canada with his wife and settles on a small island at the eastern end of Canada's Lake Ontario which comes to be called Timber Island.
Joseph Woodman, the patriarch and a ferocious shipbuilder and timber trader immigrates to Canada in a fury after his plan to drain the bogs of Ireland was rejected by the parliamentarians because of the expense. Mr. Woodman and his wife settle on the island he was granted in recognition of his efforts. Soon after, he starts his timber and shipbuilding business. His two children: Branwell a fresco artist who scorns the family business; and Annabelle a plain, lonely and gifted painter who paints only shipwrecks, prefer their art to their father's money-making timber trade. Branwell's wife Marie and their son Maurice, the Badger, a crafty businessman and his grandfather's pride and joy, come to complete the family, hence, Woodmans.
Mr. Woodman's rafts and shipbuilding business flourishes to the extent that the island becomes a very busy place and it takes the name of Timber Island. And the success of Mr.Woodman's business brings strong competitors for him; the most important one is Oran Gilderson whom Woodman is chained to "by envy and a not inconsiderable amount of loathing and Ã¢ÂÂ¦ Savoring the opportunity for potential humiliations of one kind or another." (P.169-170). When Mr. Woodman keeps the line of traditional shipbuilding, "Ships would eventually carry not only timber but also animals, barrels, china, furniture, food, bolts and nailÃ¢ÂÂ¦ cannonballs, and human beings." (p. 161), his rival changes to the modern version - steam ships, "Gilderson was clever enough to change to steam early on" says Branwell (p.253), which keeps his business going on regardless of the changes that happen after the barley business comes to an end. However, looking at Mr. Woodman's earnestness about his timber trading and shipbuilding business, one comes to think that the primary preoccupation of his mind is making money, especially when he tries to prevent Branwell from painting by saying that "what he should undertake instead is gainful employment with Cummings." (172). One sees that although Mr. Woodman sends his son to Paris to study art, he is not considering art as important profession, and the readers come to think that Branwell's art study in Paris is only an attempt by his father to remove him from the vicinity of the girl he is supposed to have an affair with, and that he does not want Branwell to become an artist. But is it really so? Reading the passages on Mr. Woodman's Maps may highlight the hidden side of this successful businessman and may answer the enigmatic question of why he is paying for Branwell's art studies if he does not consider art as something important. First of all, Mr. Woodman is an artist and is very fascinated by the beauty of the landscape, a fact that his children do not know because he keeps it to himself. It is only after his death that Annabelle comes to discover that her father is not only what she considers as bog drainer and forest plunderer, but also an artist who has "vision and heart" (p.229). However, Mr. Woodman's works of art begins when he was hired by the Crown along with other men to go and investigate the state of bogs in Ireland. His fine and "beautiful works of art" (p. 228) are the result of his report. But why does not he reveal that side of his life to his children? What they know is that he is humiliated by rejecting his bog draining project. It makes one argue that Mr. Woodman does not want to talk about something that will renew his memory of being humiliated, "How was it possible that her father could render the very landscape that had been the source of his humiliation with such meticulous affection?" (p. 228); he thus decides to focus on his business. It is important to note that Mr. Woodman's art is connected to the business, for his plan of draining bogs is to use the land for growing golden grain, so if he drains the bogs it is solely to benefit from it by exploiting the land, not for the sake of mere art as his maps show it; hence the difference between his vision of art and his children's. But the particularity of Mr. Woodman's art is the fact that he turns maps into art, as Urquhart describes it, "Executed in what must have been hundreds of shades of Ã¢ÂÂ¦ and occasionally criss-crossed by the tiniest of blue lines," (p. 228). This is what impresses his daughter and this description gives the readers the image of Sylvia's tactile map that she makes for her friend Julia; "its rhinestones, tinsel, and bits of folded aluminum," (p. 34). In this respect, one can say that maps are very important not only to Mr. Woodman but also to Sylvia, because maps embody her idea of permanence; for Sylvia has lived all her life in the family home even after marriage and she knows its every angle. In addition, one can assume that art is the primary identity of Woodmans; it is something that runs in their blood, for that reason they can become artists without going to art school. But the rafts and shipbuilding business in addition to Maurice's barley one gives them another sort of identity; hence, artists and businessmen. So Branwell's art studies are nothing but to make him discover the reality of his own self and then set him in the family business which is very important for his father. Mr. Woodman wants Branwell to use his artistic and worldly knowledge in order to become an excellent businessman, "he believed that his son had taken on an air of sophistication as a result of his European adventure" (p. 162).
In fact, the concept of Map is very important in the novel, because from Robert Smithson's map of broken glass one can see the reflection of his idea throughout the novel: for example, both Andrew and Jerome chronicle changes in the natural landscape over time, and Joseph Woodman and Sylvia both turn maps into beautiful art.
Woodmans' business, especially the barley business, scars the natural landscape but it is very important for the family, because the primary objective of any immigrant is to create a source of living, and their prosperity depends on their earnings. Mr. Woodman's trade makes a significant contribution to the construction of the country, in particular Quebec, where rafts deal takes place, even if a part of them may be exported to England. And his grandson Maurice's barley business also participates in the prosperity of the people of the county, because during his barley days, people of the county become richer and large brick houses start rising up in every corner of the city, and "Maurice would prosper to such an extent that not only were his own parents impressed Ã¢ÂÂ¦" (p. 243). During his youth, Maurice showed a particular interest in business for he was young but clever enough to understand the columns of numbers in his grandfather's office, more than he understands the lessons in poetry and drawing that his aunt Annabelle teaches him:
By the age of ten, the boy was a businessman to be reckoned with
and knew enough about how to extract money from others that his
grandfather determined that he should be sent to board at Upper
Canada College in Toronto, (p. 210-211).
Maurice embodies the image which Mr. Woodman wanted Branwell to emulate: a crafty businessman, for this respect Maurice is very important for his grandfather. Maurice fulfills Mr. Woodman's very first intention, which consists of turning the drained bogs into fields of golden grain. Yet Maurice's greed leads to their downfall, "You are a creator of deserts!" (p.285), his father considers that the growing sand is the result of his dealing with barley; in that case, his business can be seen as counter-productive despite his success in it.
Nonetheless, in spite of the huge success they experienced, Woodmans' business empire comes to its deadlock with the sand, and all that is left as tangible remembrance are the Timber Island and a hotel buried in the sand that Andrew calls "a biography of Stones" ( 37).
According to the novel, art and business are very important in creating history, and Woodmans are not only businessmen who only dream of collecting wealth, but artists who are capable of turning maps into beautiful art. It is art and business that make the legend of Woodmans, they are interconnected here. Urquhart shows through the novel the frailty of material success, and the powerful changes the lust for wealth can inflict on the landscape; and the passion for the past is also woven throughout the story. It is important to note that through art one can recreate history; Andrew's maps for example detail abandoned houses, old fences and the remains of previous settlers. And through listening to others' stories one comes to tell one's own story; Sylvia listens to Andrew and she need to be listened to in order to tell the story, "I scraped my memory like a glacier through my mind Ã¢ÂÂ¦ trying to remember when each story was told to me." (p. 368). A Map of Glass is vivid with evocative prose and haunting imagery- a hotel gradually buried by sand; a fully clothed man frozen in the ice; a blind woman tracing her fingers over a tactile map, all these elements show the skill and powerful writing of Urquhart, and they make the novel appear as the richest and most accomplished one.
Then, there is a second class of immigrant workers who are laborers, who one encounters in Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion. Ondaatje focuses attention on the work, the labor and the energy they invested in the construction of Toronto. In the first book of the novel, Ondaatje presents them walking past the farmhouse down First Lake Road, and "the boy" standing at the bedroom window looking at "the men"; the farmer coming with cattle on his way to the milking barns. The strangers step aside to let him and his cows pass. "They move from right to left. They seem already exhausted before the energy of the sun." (p. 7). These "seasonal workers" come to this place in winter to cut timber from February to March whatever the weather; and when the ice of the frozen lake begins to melt, the river drive starts; a job Ondaatje qualifies as "the easiest and most dangerous work." (p. 17); the pine logs are transported along the river from Bellrock to Napanee. Then at the end of the season they move to other areas to work, and the place appears deserted, but they come back in the following winter.
One such hard-working emigrant is Nicholas Temelcoff. Temelcoff is a Macedonian who arrives in Canada in 1914 without a passport and not speaking a word of English; "a great journey made in silence." (p.46). When he first arrives he works in a Macedonian bakery in Copper Cliff where he is paid seven dollars a month with food and sleeping quarters. He goes to school to learn English with ten year-old children although he is twenty-six. "He used to get up at two in the morning and make dough and bake till 8:30. At nine he would go to school." (p. 49). Back in Toronto, Temelcoff starts working on the bridge where he becomes famous because of the difficult task he has to do all day working hung by a rope. He uses his body to do work like a machine; he knows the distance that has to be covered by his body: "His work is exceptional and time-saving; he earns one dollar an hour while the other bridge workers receive forty cents Ã¢ÂÂ¦ free-falling like a dead star." (p. 37); obviously his character embodies the most heroic characteristics, unlike other immigrants; he works with precision and uses his body as an extension of his mind. He moves intuitively, being extremely aware of his body while doing his job; swinging in the air, he becomes famous on the bridge because "he could be blindfolded Ã¢ÂÂ¦ he knows his position in the air as if he is mercury slipping across a map" (p. 37-38).
Through the character of Temelcoff, Ondaatje shows the significance of the contribution of immigrants to the construction of Toronto. They use their bodies to do hard manual labor; they invest a great amount of energy in order to secure their survival, because of the hard labor they perform; their presence is vital for the rich investors and their body represents tools of production. Commissioner Harris' dream project and Mr. Woodman's rafts and shipbuilding business are good examples for that purpose. In this respect, the concept of body is very important in both novels: "the search had turned the millionaire's body into a rare coin, a piece of financial property." (p. 62). And in A Map of Glass, Andrew's dead body conveys the events of the past through Sylvia's story and helps Jerome to face the demon of his childhood story. In other hand, Temelcoff's work on the bridge is important indeed, but his bakery is the key factor which gives him the identity he needs, for "his bread and rolls and cakes and pastries reach the multitudes in the city". He is a responsibility taker; he takes responsibility to look after Hana; and after he has seen the light, he gets "the language, customs, family and salaries"; he assumes the skin of wild animal and takes the responsibility for the story of the nun, (p. 155).
Caravaggio is another character who like Temelcoff has the keen sense of his body necessary to his work. He develops his craft as "the neighborhood thief" (88) instead of performing an act of heroism like Temelcoff or fulfilling a necessary service to the community. But he is accepted though because he steals from the rich and not his fellow immigrants, "let me tell you about the rich - they have a way of laughing - the only thing that holds the rich to the earth is property - their bureaus, their marble tables, their jewellery" he says, (p. 235). From this quotation one sees a kind of revolutionary idea of Caravaggio against the wealthy people. Caravaggio relies on the ability of his body to move quietly, quickly and invisibly. He carefully trains his body just as Temelcoff does for his work on the bridge, so his body works by instinct and intuition as well. He sleeps lightly so that he can escape from being discovered, "his body porous to every noise" (p. 192).
But despite his ability to use his body, he is unable to protect himself when attacked in his prison cell; for that reason he recognizes the importance of effacing his body to survive, so he lets himself be painted by Patrick and Buck in order to escape. Moreover, the heroic characteristics possessed by Caravaggio are evident in the superior capabilities of his body; his excellence as a thief or a kind of escape artist undermines the supremacy of the rich. Alfred, the boy who helps him to remove the blue paint on him after his prison escape, sees him as a kind of hero, "Are you from the movie company?" (p. 189). Thus, both Caravaggio and Temelcoff fulfill superior masculine stereotypes through their bodies; this is how they acquire their identity.
In the Skin of a Lion gives voice to the forgotten of history, Caravaggio for example is sadly aware of his being left out of history of the city he has helped to build. Like Temelcoff, he is painfully conscious of his anonymity and marginality: "He was anonymous Ã¢ÂÂ¦ he would never leave his name where his skill had been. He was one of those who have a fury or sadness of only being described by someone else." (p. 207).
Another character of the novel who experiences a kind of renewal of life and goes on to change her identity is Ondaatje's fallen nun. Alice's change from nun to actress expresses a difference in how she perceives her body. It is like moving from the state of denial of her body as a nun to awareness of body when she has a "habit of sitting pale and naked at the breakfast table" (p. 143). Alice's moving from state to state in the novel indicates that immigrants acquire different identities in different circumstances; Caravaggio was a bridge worker before he ends up as a professional thief. What Ondaatje wants to show here is that immigrant's self is determined by his/her occupation.
When Patrick arrives in Toronto; "he was an immigrant to the city." (p. 55), he works in the tunnels under Lake Ontario that are being built for the waterworks, and he moves into the southeastern section of the city made up mostly of Macedonian and Bulgarian immigrants, and the lack of verbal communication does not prevent him from living and working with them, because his models of masculinity are his hardworking father and the loggers he observes in the woods. He is inexpressive in his relationship with others; a behavior he learns from his inexpressive father. By observing his father who rarely speaks, Patrick learns how to deal with others; when he was a boy "he absorbed everything from a distance" (p. 19). In the woods with his father and the loggers he learns to work without using language, so it is not surprising that he ends up working with immigrants with whom he relies on gestures to communicate.
Sometimes the question of identity of the immigrants cannot be determined through their jobs or languages they speak, but through their names. This is made clear in the novel when working in the tannery the labor agent gives the immigrants different English names such as, "Charlie Johnson and Nick Parker" in order to identify them, but this kind of identification is more transitory, because it changes as soon as they complete their role in the place where they are working. And their referring to each other by using the names of their original countries expresses the sentiment of belonging to those countries and makes them remember where they are coming from and what they were, "Hey Italy! Ã¢ÂÂ¦ Hey Canada!" (p. 142).
According to the novel, the question of identity is not only the question of language a group of people uses, or a matter of cultural background, but also a question of individual's occupation, in particular the immigrants. Even if language plays a key role in determining their identities, it is their work and occupation that give them their true self.
This is the life immigrants once lived in Canada, and this is how they acquired their identity as it is explored by Michael Ondaatje and Jane Urquhart.
It is important to explore the question of identity in In the Skin of a Lion, not only for the immigrants but also for Ondaatje's main protagonist, Patrick Lewis, who migrates from the countryside to the city as the novel expresses. In the novel, Patrick searches for identity and light, because these elements help him find love and survive the world in which he is living, "I used to be a searcher" (p. 119). A passage in Book Two of the novel describes Patrick as a lonely person who is isolated from the world around him. It suggests Patrick's feeling of separation from his friends:
Clara and Ambrose and Alice and Temelcoff and Cato- this cluster
made up a drama without him. And he himself was nothing but a
prism that refracted their lives. He searched out things, he collected
things. He was an abashed man ... he couldn't leap. (p. 163).
Patrick is a searcher; "he searched out things, he collected things" indicates that he is constantly looking for something, and that thing is light; it is not ordinary light but light that will illuminate the void inside him. Searching for that light makes him follow the blue moth through darkness. Moreover, when Patrick meets with Clara and listens to her childhood story he feels the light illuminating his way on his perpetual search. This is made clear in the novel when he meets Ambrose he tells him that he is looking for Clara, not him, because something about her holds his attention, "don't want to talk about you Small. I want Clara. Something about her cast a spell on meÃ¢ÂÂ¦ I don't know what it is." (p. 96). That thing he does not know "what it is" is the light which will lead him to his true identity. In fact, Patrick is always asking about other characters' lives, especially their past; he makes them take the responsibility for their stories. He wants to know everything about them, about their past because this helps him find his own self and take the responsibility for his part of the story. He constructs his story from their storytelling. Both Clara and Alice play an important role in changing Patrick's life, because with these characters he finds what he is looking for. That is obvious in his relation with them. Clara for example is the light herself, as her name indicates: Clara = Claire in French which means light. She sheds light in the void inside Patrick; so she is a guide of Patrick's life. It is she who initially draws him from his shell, she who leads him to Alice and she who he invariably returns to. When she leaves him and goes after Ambrose he finds himself thrust into a world of darkness; it is only when Alice enters his life does he begin to see light again. Nonetheless, these two women's past remains mysterious for Patrick; "Patrick feels he knows nothing of most of Clara's life. He keeps finding and losing parts of her, as if opening a drawer to discover another mask" (p. 83). Like Clara, Alice "refused to speak of her past Ã¢ÂÂ¦ she was never self-centered in her mythologies." (p. 143). So Patrick's effort at trying to elucidate these two character's mysterious past is actually an attempt at coming to terms with his own story since their stories are intricately interwoven with his own. By the end of the novel which actually is the beginning, Patrick is ready to take responsibility for his own story; this is suggested by his saying "Lights" (p.256) meaning that it is his turn to get on the stage and wear the skin of a Lion to tell his own story.
Although the central theme behind many stories is the loss and regaining of identity, Patrick does not have one in the first place; he has to find one by using other characters' light because he has none of his own to emit; "And he himself was nothing but a prism that refracted their lives," (p.163). The word "prism" by definition is a transparent body usually with triangular ends for dispersing or reflecting light; so Patrick reflects other characters' light, just as the moon reflects the light of the stars, because reflecting light from them Patrick is able to gain a temporary identity; that is what he is looking for. So, throughout the novel he becomes like them; he takes on Alice's quest to destroy the power of the rich by blowing up the Muskoka Hotel; he becomes a criminal like Caravaggio by breaking into the waterworks; he thus acquires a temporary identity from the immigrants he associates with.
Apparently, Patrick is also loveless when he is without an identity and the light of other characters. One can see that in the passage where the narrator speaks of, "something hollow, so when alone, when not aligned with another- whether it was Ambrose or Clara or Alice- he could hear the rattle within that suggested a space between and community. A gap of love." (p.163). by loving Clara and Alice, Patrick shows that only with love one can be expected to fit into the community.
However, it is important to emphasize the fact that Patrick's motherless childhood deprives him of the motherly part of love, and without this influence he does not receive the nurturing and encouragement he needs; that is what his father neglects, and it makes him become an "abashed man". So when he moves away, he tries to put his past behind and start a new life; "now in the city, he was new even to himself, the past locked away." (56).
It should also be noted that Ondaatje himself had been a Sri Lankan immigrant to Canada, and was thus able to write about the importance of finding one's identity in a foreign environment from personal experience of immigrant life and the question of identity. Patrick's experience therefore reflects Ondaatje's own. On the other hand, working with foreigners in the tunnel and in the tannery makes Patrick discover the meaning of being Canadian in the Macedonian community; he experiences a kind of cultural liberation by attending the play put on by immigrants at the waterworks. Yet, one sees the language and cultural barrier faced by the immigrants as they try to mouth the words of the actors to themselves in order to learn English. It is through this experience that Patrick acquires the notion of multiculturalism and realizes its significance for Canadian society. Patrick feels so isolated among the immigrants because of cultural and linguistic barriers that he appears as an immigrant from nowhere to his own land; Ondaatje writes: "they were pairs of trios, each in their own language as the dyers had been in their own colors." (p.142); and, "Patrick felt utterly alone in this laughing crowd that traded information back and forth," (p. 120). Although Patrick is the one who is born in Canada, but clinging "like moss to strangers, to the nooks and fissures of their situation" (p. 163) makes him become an alien in his own country, although it helps him find an identity even if a temporary one. This is what Ondaatje may have experienced when he emigrated from Sri Lanka to Canada, even if not linguistically but culturally before identifying himself as Canadian.
In the two novels one can find contrasts and connections. First of all, the connection that can be found in the two novels is the fact that both depict hard-laboring immigrants' lives, their work, so work is the strong connection between the said novels. And Lake Ontario plays an important role in both novels. Patrick, Sylvia and Jerome all listen to other people's stories before telling their own. And the concept of love is one of the key matters in both novels: A Map of Glass is not only a saga of man versus nature, the power of life, art or death, but also a love story; Sylvia and Andrew's love story. In In the Skin of a Lion Patrick loves two women, which makes the novel not only a story of the lives of hard-laboring immigrants but also a love story. And male's work is predominant in both novels. The contrast between the two novels can be seen in the very first beginnings; Ondaatje, in the very first page stresses the concern with personal narratives and the act of storytelling: "this is the story a young girl Ã¢ÂÂ¦ she listens to the man as he picks up and brings together various corners of the story, attempting to carry it all in his arms." (p. 1); this quotation shows the readers how Patrick builds his story out of bits and pieces of memories. Urquhart at the beginning goes directly through the story, "He is an old man walking in winter. And he knows thisÃ¢ÂÂ¦." (p. 1). A Map of Glass is focused on family history, love and loss, landscape and pride of place, and most of all, greed and the wreckage it may leave in its way, whereas In the Skin of a Lion narrates the forgotten stories of those who contributed to the building of the city Toronto particularly the immigrants and marginal individuals, and at the same time creates an intimate space where the silenced and marginal themselves tell their own stories; the construction of the bridge and the abhorrent working condition in the tunnel catch readers' attention; therefore work is connected to the concept of identity of the immigrants here. In a Map of Glass the dominant factor is art; that is obvious from the title of the novel to the maps and paintings of the different characters in the novel, so art is connected to the concept of identity in this novel. From this respect, one can say that work and storytelling are what give identity to the immigrants in Ondaatje's novel; and art and business are what give identity to Urquhart's characters in A Map of Glass.
It is important to note that Ondaatje's novel also has art work, because if Woodman's shipbuilding can be seen as a work of art, Commissioner Harris Bridge will then be described as masterpiece.
Conclusion, Urquhart's A Map of Glass shows the transitory nature of the Timber Island; the success of Woodmans' business empire and its negative effect on the landscape; in other words, excessive desire for wealth may lead to the destruction of nature. And behind the exploration of Woodmans' story, one sees Urquhart's passion for art and the beauty of the landscape. And the novel shows that one can construct one's own story through recalling. Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion shows that, immigrant workers acquire their identity through their work; and their presence is vital for the construction of Toronto. The novel shows that one can use another person's identity for one's own before one gains one's own self. Patrick uses the identity of other characters in his search for his own. Both novels show that telling one's story may lead to the construction of another story.
Urquhart, Jane. A Map of Glass, MacAdam/Cage publishing, 2006
Ondaatje, Michael. In the Skin of a Lion, London: Pan Macmillan, 1988
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