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Abstract

Winfried Siemerling argues in his paper "Oral History and the Writing of the Other in Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion" that the simulation of oral narratives in the novel imagines the conveyance of oral histories of immigrant experiences obscured by historiography. The narrative device of simulated orality -- the written text casts itself as the outcome of serial story-telling -- serves here to introduce erstwhile anonymous societal actors as makers of history, and emphasizes the collective production of story and history. Oral narratives emerge dreamlike like light out of darkness in this text; yet light, like writing, creates a problematic visibility whose multiple sources must be acknowledged. A critique of previous writing of history, In the Skin of a Lion "betrays" in both senses of the word history, silence, and darkness -- by imagining necessary possibilities and necessarily omitting others. The interdependence of orality and writing and of darkness and visibility evokes in the novel the romantic valorization of darkness that inverts the classical metaphor of light as purveyor of truth. Yet, this interdependence also critiques orality: articulations of history and the "survival" of events have to cope with the lacunae created by writing and with the hazardous transmissions and temporalities of orality. The title of In the Skin of a Lion evokes the Epic of Gilgamesh intertextually, whose eponymous hero fails to achieve immortality because of his inability of staying awake several nights. Similarly, the oral narratives Patrick Lewis collects and conveys throughout the novel almost remain in darkness when he falls asleep at a critical moment. The "immortality" of these narratives and their silenced subjects is assured only by a listener who later keeps the speaker awake in the night, and the stories alive in a conversation that sees the light of day in a written text and its simulation of oral history.

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