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Of Prowess, Peril, Rescue and Repose : IN THE SKIN OF A LION by Michael Ondaatje (Alfred A. Knopf Inc.: $16.95; 244 pp.)

October 04, 1987

Had socialist realism remained in the hands of the poets and been repressed and forced to go underground instead of being elevated by Stalin and enforced by his bureaucrats, we would have a recognizable lineage for "In the Skin of a Lion." As it is, it stands alone; lovely and strange.

If you could put the 1930s slogans and bad art out of mind and start fresh, you could think of "Skin" as a kind of ode to the nobility of labor. Michael Ondaatje's novel uses the works and days of a high-steel rigger, a professional dynamiter, a dyer, a baker and a burglar as so many images of human life and prowess.

Ondaatje, a Canadian born in Ceylon to a family that had lived there for several generations, is a poet as well as a novelist. He is the author of, among other things, "Running in the Family," a childhood memoir that is a book of fabulousness growing out of fact. His writing attaches fantasy to reality with such a deft and hidden seam that the real seems fantastic and the fantastic real.

"Skin of a Lion" shares this quality. Ondaatje writes of precision dynamiting or a man swinging down a steel cable so that these things are entirely material and haunted. He is laconic and numinous. A logging camp cook trudges prosaically up along the river distributing pork sandwiches and tea; then he hops on a log for the ride back downstream and suddenly he is mantled in ceremony:

"He stood up straight in mid-river, traveling at only the speed that the river wished. He would float under the bridge without altering his posture, though there was only an inch to spare, nodding to loggers on the bank, disheartened by the ever-present crows. He would step off at the camp at Geese Island with his shoes perfectly dry."

"Skin" has a kinship with Doctorow's "Ragtime" and Mark Helprin's "Winter's Tale" in that a historical and social background, more or less factual, is seeded with myth. The kinship is only formal, though; the style and spirit are original.

It is organized around a picaresque quest. The quester is Patrick Lewis, born in the Canadian north country in the early part of the century and making his life later in Toronto, which was then beginning its transition from a small to a great city. Patrick's own transition, as he knocks about, is from seeker and observer to participant.

His search has to do with love and justice. They draw him along. But, as with all classic quest stories, most of the life is provided not by the goal but by the encounters along the way.

As a young man, Patrick is hired as one of a group of investigators trying to track Ambrose Small, a wealthy promoter who has disappeared. He meets Clara, an actress who was Small's lover. They have an affair; then she vanishes to rejoin Small in his hiding place. Clara is the start of Patrick's material and moral journey; her reappearance after Small's death will end it.

Meanwhile, he takes up with another actress, Alice, widow of a labor organizer murdered for his activities. Alice works with a group of immigrant activists in Toronto; she dies when a bomb is mysteriously slipped into a bag she is carrying. Her death sets Patrick off on a course of political violence, which puts him in jail for a while and which he abandons after an attempt to blow up Toronto's newly built waterworks.

The story is larger than life, and dreamier. It is full of strange and dramatic encounters, and of figures--Small, Clara, Alice, and the visionary builder of the waterworks--whose reality is heightened by myth. Ondaatje's complex design draws together a vivid romance, a political fable and a celebration of the wonder and harshness of constructing a modern country in a wilderness.

The story can seem arbitrary, and it can get out of hand. The shadowy figure of Small is more portentous than interesting; and there is a marginal surplus of unanchored mysteries--women, mostly--drifting in and out.

But the freshness and inventiveness of the writing overcome most of the difficulties. If the pattern is impracticably ambitious at times, the fabric is splendid.

Ondaatje gives an extraordinary sensual sheen to the brief affair between Patrick and Clara. His style is terse, with an unsettling alternation of the allusive and the direct that churns up a powerful current of tension. Indeed, the electricity produced in the few early pages devoted to Clara manages to get stored, somehow, and after everything else that happens, reappears at the end and lights it up.

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