The Blue Thief


This is an excerpt from In the Skin of the Lion, by Michael Ondaatje, published in 1987.  The novel is set in and around Toronto, spanning a period from around 1915 to the late 1930s.

There was a blue tin jail roof.  They were painting the Kingston Penitentiary roof up to the sky so that after a while the three men working on it became uncertain of clear boundaries.  As if they could climb up further, beyond the rim, into that ocean above the roof.

By noon, after four hours, they felt they could walk on the blue air.  The prisoners Buck and Lewis and Caravaggio knew this was a trick, a humiliation of the senses.  Why an intentional blue roof? There were times when Patrick Lewis, government paintbrush in hand, froze.  Taking a seemingly innocent step he would fall through the air and die.  …

….They were fifty yards from the ground.  The paint pails were joined by rope – one on each slope –so two men could move across the long roof symmetrically.

They sat on the crest of the roof during their breaks eating sandwiches, not coming down all day.  They leaned the heels of their hands into the wet paint as they worked.  They would scratch their noses and realize they became partly invisible.  If they painted long enough they would be eradicated, blue birds in a blue sky.  Patrick Lewis understood this, painting a bug that would not move away alive onto the blue metal.

Demarcation, said the prisoner named Caravaggio.  That is all we need to remember.

And that was how he escaped – a long double belt strapped under his shoulders attaching him to the cupola so he could hang with his arms free, splayed out, while Buck and Patrick painted him.  They daubed his hands and clothes and then, laying a strip of handkerchief over his eyes, painted his face blue, so he was gone – to the guards who looked up and saw nothing there.

The search had died down, and the lights-out whistle had gone off.  Caravaggio began to move in his cocoon of dry paint, … feeling his clothes crack as he bent his arm to remove the handkerchief.  He saw nothing but the night.  He unhooked the belt. … Uncoiling the rope hidden around the cupola, he let himself down off the roof, and ran.


For each child that’s born a morning star rises and sings to the universe who we are.

I am a story, you are a story.  Professor and novelist Thomas King says that the truth about stories is that    that is all we are.

This morning is a morning for memory and stories.

I am a story, you are a story – or maybe more accurately we are collections of stories.   We are ever evolving, emerging and changing collections of stories that intersect with other stories, all set in a historical place and time.

What makes up your collection?  Could you even begin to catalog it?  Or cross-reference it?  Are there parts of it you’d file under “classified?” 

What are the earliest stories you remember – as a child?  Were some of them family stories?  How did they form you?  And does your collection include stories of fictional characters?  You might want to think about what those earliest stories told you – still tell you – about who you were, and what the world is like.

There were lots of stories I read over and over again, as a child.  So often that some of their phrases and scenes are still etched in memory.  Stories about other children, other families, other places and times.  They gave me reference points for my own life story; they enlarged by imagination; they made me laugh and cry. 

The later Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books were some of my favorites.  Laura’s life, harder in some ways, also felt simpler and clearer than mine.  I imagined myself in her world, as her friend, and vice versa. 

My sister Betsy and I each had our own books.  We lent them to each other but always made sure to return them.  I didn’t care about her horse books.  But I did love The Secret Garden, which belonged to her.  I don’t know if anyone reads that any more.  It’s one of the few books my mother, whose memory doesn’t retain enough to follow from one paragraph to the next, can still pick up and enjoy.

The stories of fictional companions and strangers have moved and intrigued and maddened me all my life.  They have touched my imagination and spirit.  They have given me ‘aha’ moments – moments of recognition and confirmation about human behavior or experience that I may have sensed, but hadn’t yet articulated.  Their stories have mingled with my own.

Michael Ondaatje’s David Caravaggio touched my imagination some time in the 1990s. By then most of my reading was taking me to more unfamiliar settings and places.  The book in which Caravaggio first appeared, In the Skin of the Lion, was published in 1987.  My own copy is a paperback, printed in 1997.  I would have said, before finding that date inside it, that I had read it earlier than 1997.  I would have said I remember reading it while commuting to Boston on the train, something I stopped doing in late 1996. 

Our own stories may not have actually happened the way we remember them. Memory deceives us.  Whether we know it or not, we’re constantly re-remembering and re-inventing the stories that make us who we are.  Events in Washington might often remind you of that. 

But I don’t think my memory is fooling me in this case.  I probably borrowed In the Skin of the Lion from the library, only later buying my own copy to reread it.  Lots of fictional stories intersected with mine during the years I commuted by train – a daily delightful escape – 30 minutes each way. 

A Protestant pastor named David Zahl wrote,

Research consistently shows that stories mold us. The more deeply we are cast under a story’s spell, the more potent its influence. In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence.

He goes on:

Studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us open to seeing each other and life anew.

Novels and short stories have taught me more about history, and about people and cultures not my own, than have non-fiction or academic pursuits.

Both novels in which Caravaggio appears by name are set against historical events.  His second appearance is in the award-winning 1992 novel The English Patient, which takes place in northern Italy at the end of World War II.. 

In that novel Caravaggio has been using his talents at breaking and entering as an agent of the allied intelligence forces – a spy.  He has come to Italy to find Hana, whom he knew when she was a child.  Hana is a young Canadian nurse who stayed behind in a ruined villa to tend the mysterious so-called English patient.  Caravaggio is also interested in discovering the English patient’s true identity.  Whether this is for his own purposes or for allied intelligence is not clear. 

Before becoming a professional thief, Caravaggio worked as a laborer.  He laid tar between the bricks on the Bloor Street Viaduct – a massive bridge connecting the east and central sections of Toronto that was completed in 1918.

One night, when the bridge is still under construction, a group of nuns lose their way, wandering out past the barriers and onto the worksite.  The wind knocks them off their feet, slamming them into cement mixers and trucks.  Men rush to rescue them.  The youngest of them is blown off the bridge.

A miracle happens – lower down, hanging by a leather harness from a girder, is a man named Temelcoff, a worker whose job it is swing from that harness in midair and maneuver beams into place.  Ondaatje writes:

He saw the shape fall towards him, in that second knowing his rope would not hold them both. He reached to catch the figure while his other hand grabbed the metal pipe edge above him to lessen the sudden jerk on the rope.  The new weight ripped the arm that held the pipe out of its socket and he screamed.  Whoever might have heard would have assumed the scream was from the falling figure.

The harness rope holds.  Temelcoff keeps his grip on the young nun, who is too much in shock to scream or speak.  They manage to get off the bridge, and take refuge in a café.  Temelcoff tries to get her to speak while he downs a whiskey.  She is silent.  Eventually she slips away – disappearing into the streets, out of sight. 

That young nun reappears much later in the book, in a different guise, now with a name – Alice Gull.  She has become an actress.  She has become a political activist.  She has a young daughter named Hana.  The same Hana who grows up to be a nurse tending patients in a ruined villa in Italy.  Patrick Lewis, Caravaggio’s painting companion, becomes Alice’s lover, and then, when Alice is killed, Hana’s adoptive father.

For each child that’s born, a morning star rises
    and sings to the universe who we are

Who we are is made up of stories, and more stories.

Stories real and imagined and re-imagined, stories connected to other stories – the song the universe sings is those stories – the miracle, the serendipity, the inevitability of our connections. 

Roads not taken, wrong turns, destinations that disappoint.  The universe sings no less because time and space wear us thin.

The music calls us to recognize our connections,
      to recognize that the song is best sung with others,[i]

Maybe that’s why I love it when an author recycles characters from one book and puts them in another, rounding them out, changing them, adding to their histories, building a web of connections across time and place.  And why even now I read books I love again, and sometimes again.

Caravaggio is an observer of the wealthy and powerful.  Skilled at stealing because of his practiced powers of observation.  Ursula K LeGuin  says that storytelling is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary. 

And also wrong.  That is something else I have learned, and continue to learn, from stories.

Michael Ondaatje has said that he doesn’t know what will happen in the characters’ lives when he starts a novel. 

“Two roads diverged in a wood.”  Way leads onto way, and way crosses way. The stories emerge and evolve.

Ondaatje’s Caravaggio is an accomplished thief.  He breaks into the houses of people who can easily afford to lose the valuables he takes.  A dog named August accompanies him, standing guard outside the house his master has broken into, ready to give one sharp, warning bark if the owners return.  Once August betrayed the thief, becoming distracted from his post at just the wrong time.

Which is why Caravaggio finds himself in jail, and then one day on the jail roof, painting it a blue the color of the sky.  “Demarcation,” he says.  A differentiation that separates A from B.  Separating imprisoned man from roof, roof from sky.  The man takes on the color of the roof, disappears, and escapes.

It’s one of the more improbable stories in the book.  Wasn’t there a fence? 

Isn’t it wonderful that an author can find ways for a character to accomplish something that a real person could not?  I think Caravaggio is probably the author’s alter-ego.  And maybe also the reader’s. 

Have you ever managed to disappear and escape – from a prison of your own making or one imposed upon you?   Think demarcation – differentiation of self from the situation in which you feel, or felt, trapped. 

And notice that Caravaggio cannot disappear on his own.  He needs his comrades to tie him to the cupola and paint him into the sky.   He needs the help of a small boy named Alfred whom he meets the next day.  Alfred steals some turpentine and helps Caravaggio de-blue himself.

For each child that’s born, a morning star rises
    and sings to the universe who we are

Who we are is made up of stories, and more stories.

We’re constantly re-remembering and re-inventing the stories that make us who we are.  The way we tell them to ourselves matters.  Sometimes it’s a good idea to look at the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.  Sometimes they can benefit from a bit of re-inventing.

Roads not taken, wrong turns, destinations that disappoint.  The universe sings no less because time and space wear us thin.

The music calls us to recognize our connections,
      to recognize that the song is best sung with others

The song the universe sings is those stories – the miracle, the serendipity, the inevitability of our connections. 

We need stories – ones that rise in the imaginations of writers, ones that come from our own lives. 

We need them for joy, for comfort, for confirming what we know to be true

We need them for expanding our horizons and challenging us,
for reminding us to feel, for reminding us how we feel.

So that we may know ourselves and one another.

We need stories –

If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may
  miss our star.[ii]


[i] Manish Mezra-Manetti, from “Song of the Universe” in Voices from the Margins, Skinner 2012

[ii] From  "A Ritual to Read to Each Other," William Stafford