Academic journal article ARIEL

Unofficial Collections: Organic/artifactual Documents and the (Re)inscription of the Civic Archive in Michael Ondaatje's in the Skin of a Lion

Academic journal article ARIEL

Unofficial Collections: Organic/artifactual Documents and the (Re)inscription of the Civic Archive in Michael Ondaatje's in the Skin of a Lion

Article excerpt

I. Finding Aid

As a reader preoccupied with the documentary tradition in Canadian letters, I have spent my fair share of time rooting around archival institutions across the country. My doctoral research into the documentary underpinnings of Robert Kroetsch's Badlands took me in search of palaeontological fieldnotes in such repositories as Montreal's McGill University Archives, Ottawa's National Archives, the University of Calgary's Special Collections, and Drumheller's Royal Tyrrell Museum Library. I followed Kroetsch's and Simon Schama's sage advice about going to ground in search of historical insight. I even went so far as to sign up for a dig in Dinosaur Provincial Park to get my hands into the vast outdoor archive of the badlands. Instead of pulling on white gloves to leaf through dusty files in a climate-controlled bunker, I put on work gloves in the blazing sun to scrape with pick and awl at the mineral matrix of hoodoos and buttes in search of the elusive frill of pachyrhinosaur. We never found it, but I learned a great deal about distinguishing fossil bone from pebbles of ironstone amid deceiving geology.

Most importantly, I learned to be flexible with my methodology. I learned to trust my instincts. Experience has taught me that no two archival inquiries are the same. Some may lead the investigator into familiar territory, and some may lead her further afield. Some lead deep into the pages of a primary text where rich discoveries can still be made. If the palaeontologist relies on proven techniques to discern an ancient narrative from the colour and texture and spacing of rock strata, the literary critic should not shy away from using the oldest tool in her kit: close reading. This approach is especially relevant in the case of those works that Linda Hutcheon describes as "historiographic metafictions"--those novels that are self referential or auto-representational and preoccupied with the production of history (61). Because they challenge the very writing of historical narrative, they must employ novel strategies and alternative sources of documentation. My close reading of In the Skin of A Lion will demonstrate how Michael Ondaatje intuits documents where, for a multiplicity of reasons, no textual archive exists It is axiomatic by now to state that history tends to forget when it is convenient for interested parties. Fiction has recourse to remember the unconventional records of forgotten parties. Such records are plausible if not always extant. When it comes to excavating suppressed histories, Ondaatje is a veritable rock hound.

Certainly, I am not the first reader to poke around the buried foundations of In the Skin of a Lion. It goes without saying that Ondaatje's novel is one of the most studied pieces of contemporary fiction in Canadian literary criticism. As such this paper will presuppose the reader's familiarity with a well-known cast of characters, their relationships, and their plot entanglements so as to better focus on archival questions. The text's use of conventional archival materials--paper documents--has already been the subject of much critical attention. This paper identifies and examines two groups of documents that have received far less attention: organic documents (extra-linguistic histories recorded on skin) and artifactual documents (archaeological traces of history embodied in physical artifacts). My reading of In the Skin of a Lion addresses Ondaatje's postulation of voice for the silenced workers in Toronto's history as well as his re-inscription of the civic archive with non-paper documentation.

II. Document Inventory

Before I kick my proverbial shovel into the ground, I must survey the terrain and consider the observations collected by previous expeditions. Because work is continually in progress and new material is always coming to the surface, this survey provides a sampling rather than an exhaustive catalogue. Come along with me into the field. …

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