In his book Living in a New Country, Paul Carter writes of a "post-colonial collage"--a mixture of words, phrases, and sentences from a variety of sources for the creation of new meanings. Post-colonial collage has an "interest in mapping the gaps, the interzones where discontinuities are suppressed" in order to "relocate and sound the spaces in-between" (Carter 187). This technique describes the efforts of Michael Ondaatje and Janette Turner Hospital, who use historical sources, great works of twentieth-century literature, myths, and gossip to spin intricate tales about migrants and outsiders in In the Skin of a Lion and The Last Magician, respectively. The fiercely visual styles employed in Ondaatje's and in Hospital's works conjure vivid images in the mind's eye; as space, time, and identity intersect, migrants and outsiders collide and connect past to present, official history to unwritten histories, and established places to untraversed territories. The intentions are to include the excluded, to articulate the unarticulated, to cast light upon the shadowy margins where the migrant is often situated. In so doing, Ondaatje and Hospital create literary collages that provide voices to those caught in transit, attempting to negotiate the in-between.
This cast of voices has so far been referred to as one of migrants, but the term "migrant" require analysis. According to anthropologist Victor Turner, the migrant is included in the larger category of "marginals," a set of people who belong to more than one social or cultural group and who attempt to inhabit these different worlds; marginals generally include those of mixed origins and immigrants (Turner 233). This group is distinct from outsiders, or those who exist outside of one particular culture or society; outsiders include rebels, dissidents, religious or spiritual representatives, and "hippies, hoboes, and gypsies" (Turner 233). To use the term "migrant" to refer to many of the characters who populate In the Skin of a Lion and The Last Magician may thus seem misleading. However, though there is certainly a difference between the Eastern European immigrants of Ondaatje's novel and the voluntary outsiders like Lucy in Magician , all of the characters share a heightened awareness of the worlds they inhabit and the roles they play, self-consciously or not, within those worlds.
And what of this role-playing? The most obvious actor in Ondaatje's text is Alice Gull, the former nun who is rescued by Nicholas Temelcoff. Patrick's relationship with Alice is full of Patrick's attempts to unpack who exactly she is. "Alice came to him it seemed in a a series of masks or painted faces," the reader learns at the onset of their affair, and Patrick lovingly tries to peel away the layers that separate them (Ondaatje 128). Alice's reluctance to reveal her history--her time as a nun, her relationship with Cato--or to commit to a future intensifies Patrick's search for her and, "in the midst of his love for Alice...he watches her face...half expecting metamorphosis as they kiss" (Ondaatje 153). Alice's acceptance of performance also reads as an acceptance of the ever-changing self; seh "gave nothing away of herself" not because she held tight to an essential identity, but because she embraces impermanence (Ondaatje 137). Lucy of The Last Magician is also an actor of sorts. Having abandoned the identity of schoolgirl Lucia, Lucy finds new freedom as a barmaid and then as a prostitute, a job that allows her to role-play as her custormers project their fantasies and memories onto the landscape of her body. Lucy--perhaps like Alice before costuming--is an empty space, a free channel for ghosts. Lucy also feels herself "shapeshifting...inside the skin of other people," adding to her intense awareness of the multitude of ways of being (Hospital 37). The voluntary migrancies of Alice and Lucy result from jolting encounters with those who are involuntary outsiders, the marginalized who often want into the center. Alice and Lucy recognize that where there is inclusion, there must be exclusion; their unabashed role playing highlights the ways in which others falsify themselves or attempt to claim legitimacy. The immigrants of In the Skin cling to their communities while accepting Anglicized names and learning English from songs or films. Charlie Fu Hsi Chang insists that he is a "'true blue Aussie'" to Australians who refuse to believe he was born anywhere except China (Hospital 43). Gabriel will not introduce himself as "Gabriel Gray," a self that died when his parents separated abruptly. The act of embracing or refusing an identity happens with simple name changes as well as with life-altering choices. The migrating characters of In the Skin and The Last Magician are, far more often than not, in a constant state of flux, never certain of who they were, of who they are, or of who they will become.
The migrants' bodies, however, are essential to the negotiation of their identities and as a way of exploring the spaces in which they find themselves. Karen Overbye notes that Michael Ondaatje foregrounds his characters' bodies "as sites of meaning, as extensions of the self" (12). Patrick's personality is read by Alice immediately through his movements: "He slides through company, she notices, as anonymously as possible," a description befitting a man who is "always comfortable in someone else's landscape" (Ondaatje 77, 138). The dyers sacrifice their bodies for their survival, soaking in color as they dye animal skins, risking tuberculosis, and destined to have the odor of their labor on their bodies for years to come. Relationships between characters are explained in physical terms, through lovemaking, touching, and movement. In Hospital's novel, the character who captivates the most is not Lucy, who insists that her body masks her untouchable self, but Cat, whose body "'give[s] off some sort of heat'" and burns with her fearlessness (Hospital 277, 272).
These bodies are also especially conscious of the physical spaces they inhabit. Ondaatje's characters, in particular, are masters of the unexplored territories they claim. Immigrants Nicholas Temelcoff and Caravaggio rely upon their sense of space to earn their livings, Temelcoff as a daredevil bridge-builder and Caravaggio as a thief. Temelcoff hurls himself into the dangerous dark spaces others dare not venture into, his body instinctively aware of the distance he travels and the time that lapses. Caravaggio learns to take what he wants in the dark, with "a sense of the world which was limited to what existed for twenty fee around him" (Ondaatje 189). Both men test out unfamiliar spaces, risking themselves while asserting their presence. A joyful riskiness surrounds their existence and suggests a new kind of power and liberation. Patrick seems to express this freedom when, in the midst of his love for Clara, he learns to blindfold himself and hurl his body through the air. Alice abandons the sisterhood after falling into the black abyss under the unfinished bridge and re-enters the world as an actress, using her body as a mode of expression. Cat of The Last Magician commands respect with her agility, speed, and fearlessness about surrendering herself to dangerous spaces, like falls and railroad tracks. The activities of Temelcoff, Caravaggio, Cat and sometimes Patrick show that the marginalized can reclaim their power by leaping into the unknown, uncharted waters.
Ondaatje and Hospital also make much of the space created by absences; in fact, the vast majority of the stories are told during the absences of the major characters. In Ondaatje's novel, Clara always speaks of her absent lover, Ambrose Pierce, and eventually leaves Patrick to live with him. Both the absences of Clara and Alice devastate Patrick, who loses language when they each leave his life. In Hospital's novel, absence is even more acute: the whole novel is a collage of memory, with all but two characters missing from the present. Robinson Gray, Gabriel, Charlie, and Catherine all long for Cat throughout the book, and by the end Lucy and Catherine are left longing for Gabriel and Charlie as well. "The whole bloody world is crowded with absences," says Lucy, a refrain throughout the novel (Hospital 6). Both works reverberate with stunning longings for lost and missing people; the spaces, physical and emotional, between the characters seem to take on lives of their own.
The spaces of physical geography are perhaps the most obviously important to the migrant, and Ondaatje and Hospital differ in their chosen methods of using specific spaces. Ondaatje's area is Ontario, Canada, and he uses the place for specific detail, as a way of telling the stories of the immigrants who laid the foundation for its growth. The bridge, to be named the Prince Edward Viaduct, is symbolic insofar as its construction by the immigrants shows both a connection between old and new worlds, as well as the charting of new territory on the terms of the powerful and rich elite at the expense of the powerless poor. In The Last Magician, Hospital intensifies the level of symbolism with the lines clearly drawn between the world of the quarry and supposedly respectable society. The narrator Lucy moves between the two worlds like Dante wandering in the woods before dropping into the inferno. The quarry, like Dante's inferno, is a hellish underground city of lost souls, filled with people who have dared to sin, to fly in the face of authority, to transgress the rules of the mainstream. The quarry grows continuously as more people slip through the cracks and stumble in, causing those who live above it to whisper anxiously and speak carefully of "triage," a gentle term for a ruthless variation on Darwinian survival of the fittest (Hospital 90-91). This underground horror is the physical manifestation of the buried secrets and unpleasant knowledge the mainstream society prefers to forget. The quarry exists so that the "respectable" world represented by Robinson Gray can live cleanly, regularly turning a blind eye to harsh realities and the truths hidden in the subconscious. "'The quarry props up a lot of walled gardens,'" says Gabriel, and it provides mainstream Sydney with an other for its disapproval (Hospital 282). Geographical space is used to embody the sharp differences between the center and the margins, as well as the migrants' efforts to move between the two.
The theme of geographical space links to the element of time in memory, as moments and places lodge in the migrant mind like "remains," according to Salman Rushdie (12). Ondaatje and Hospital's books read like excavations. In the Skin challenges official history by underscoring its glaring omissions. Archival photos barely reveal Nicholas Temelcoff, although he was well-known by the bridgebuilders and an essential part of the viaduct's construction (Ondaatje 34). Archival information also fails to reveal any information on any of the bridgebuilders; "official histories and news stories were always soft as rhetoric" (Ondaatje 145). The necessary information for a thorough history can be found in a multitude of places: personal histories, oral transmission, gossip, poetry, and myth are only the beginning. Patrick's search for Alice, Temelcoff, and Clara are archaelogical digs, and every link he makes helps him to understand his place in time and space. The history Patrick seeks is a "spatial history" which, unlike the "imperial history" that only takes account of time, recognizes the "unfinished maps" of cyclical events.
In Hospital's novel, she focuses less on the failures of official histoy and more on the tendency of the past and present to blend together and affect the future. The dramatic tug-of-war in this story is between those who are determined to uncover the past and those who feel it should remain in the past, distant and irretrievable. Charlie recognizes the impossibility of, as well as the need for, forgetting; somehow, he is never free from painful memories (Hospital 109). Gabriel searches for the clues to his family's past under the pretense of justice but more likely to confirm or disprove the dark thoughts he has about his father, Robinson Gray. Robinson, in turn, deperately keeps the past at an arm's length--not to do so might mean his destruction. The most important histories, in Hospital's view, are the personal ones; Charlie's obsessive photography is a documentation of the intersection of time and space with its reconstructions of an ever-present past. Gabriel's efforts to map the quarry--to note "the garish day and its artefacts"--are dangerous because he threatens, like Charlie, to name names, to place places, to shine light into the gaps (Hospital 265). The migrant/outsider positions they occupy make their truth-telling possible. As Charlie says from his perch on "the border lands....'The view from here is always interesting'" (Hospital 79).
But once the migrant's view is established, how does (s)he find the voice or the language to tell a story? Language is especially troublesome for the immigrants of In the Skin, and the ambivalence of language as a tool of communication is illustrated by Patrick's love/hate relationship with it. For the immigrants, their mother tongues unite them with their communities and bind them to a history. To communicate in English is to forge new bonds with a hostile world, to potentially rob the immigrants of their ability to make themselves understood. Some, like Nicholas, learn to communicate in new ways; because "language is much more difficult than what he does in space," Temelcoff finds a different route to expression (Ondaatje 43). Later, as he feels himself "sewn into history," he is prepared to tell his story (Ondaatje 149). Patrick withdraws from language after Clara abandons him and again after Alice's death, but language allows him to transmit the story of the immigrants to Alice's daughter Hana. Despite its difficulties, finding the language for the migrant experience is essential.
Visual images have at least as much, if not more, impact as language in The Last Magician. Charlie's photographs unsheath the secret history that the characters share with an immediate effect upon the reader. The photographs render thousands of words unnecessary, bridging gaps that language struggles to fill. Charlie wants to"see what [he's] seen" by documenting the fragments and silences that tumble in between words (Hospital 95). The photos beome collages that make connections between disparate and forgotten elements in order to pull out what has fallen into the cracks: buried truths, ghosts, suppressed memories, things left unsaid. Time-bound and timeless, visual images isolate those moments of intersection where the migrant or the outsider is often caught, suspended, arriving from and on the verge of.
So how are stories to be told? Ondaatje and Hospital offer styles that are non-linear and highly cinematic in nature. Perhaps they are their versions of the post-colonial collage. Ondaatje offers several stories that weave into each other unexpectedly, and suggests the multitude of ways in which the multitude of stories can be shared. His searchers work dynamite as they reconcile their pasts with their present realities, resituate themselves, and use their migrant positions to construct their histories (Ondaatje 114). Hospital's narrative style spins a web around the reader so that, like Lucy, (s)he is "a mere bystander who got sucked in" (66). The many levels of the story unfold sometimes haphazardly, forcing the reader to hunt for clues and uncover evidence as obsessively as Charlie and Gabriel. The post-colonial collage surfaces in the recasting of Dante's Inferno and T.S. Eliot's poetry, boldly repositioning the marginalized in their narratives. Finally, both Ondaatje and Hospital leave the reader with the longings Patrick, Lucy, and Catherine all feel, but also with an optimism that those absences they--and other migrants--experience provide the opportunity for new beginnings as well as the challenge of finding a voice for their stories.
Carter, Paul. Living in a New Country: History, Travelling, and Language. London: Faber and Faber, 1992.
-----. "Spatial History." In The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. London: Routledge, 1995. 375-377.
Hospital, Janette Turner. The Last Magician. London: Virago Press, 1992.
Ondaatje, Michael. In the Skin of A Lion. London: Picador, 1988.
Overbye, Karen. "Remembering the Body: Constructing the Self as Hero in In The Skin of A Lion." Studies in Canadian Literature, No. 17, 1992. 1-13.
Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands. London: Granta Books, 1991.
Turner, Victor. Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974.
@Myka Carroll, 1996.