In the Skin of a Lion

In the Skin of a Lion Summary and Analysis of Book Three, Chapter 1, “Caravaggio”


This chapter opens with Patrick painting the roof of the Kingston Penitentiary with two other men, Buck and Caravaggio. Thus, without the text saying it, we know Patrick has been caught and put in prison. Caravaggio has come up in the novel briefly before as a tar layer and as the “neighborhood thief” who Patrick describes in a letter to Clara. The men paint the roof the same blue of the sky, to the point where they are disoriented and don’t know where the sky or roof end. Caravaggio tells the other two about “demarcation,” and that is how he escapes. He is painted blue by his friends, so that he cannot be demarcated from the sky, and right in front of the guards, he goes very slowly down the cupola on a rope. He steals clothes by breaking into a clothing store, then jumps on a milk train, tying himself to the roof so he can sleep.

Caravaggio jumps off the train at Trenton, finds a hardware store and asks a boy coming out if he can bring some turpentine out to Caravaggio. The boy asks if he is from the movie, and Caravaggio says he is. The boy goes to get him turpentine, and Caravaggio cleans off the paint. When the boy sees scars on Caravaggio’s neck, Caravaggio confesses he is from prison. The boy does not seem to care, and in fact seems like Caravaggio more. He gives Caravaggio a maple-syrup spile as a present and tells Caravaggio that he doesn’t want a present in return, just wants Caravaggio to remember his name, Alfred.

Caravaggio knows he must make it to cottage country, where there will be empty seasonal cottages for him to break into and sleep. Finally when he gets inside one and is ready to fall asleep, he enters a flashback/dream state that re-lives the event of his neck being cut in jail. Three men broke into his cell and twisted his sheet around his eyes and nose, and then they slashed his neck. Patrick was in the cell opposite and above him, and unable to help, he shouted out square-dance calls to make sure Caravaggio remained conscious.

The next morning at the cottage, Caravaggio takes a canoe out on the lake. He runs into a woman named Anne, and though he is touched by her friendly small talk, she is the first person he has spoken to in so long, he doesn’t know how to speak with her. He rows away from her and then we enter three flashbacks: the first time he met Patrick in prison as they communicated through their cells, how he trained to become a thief, and then a longer flashback of his first robbery.

We learn in the flashbacks that Caravaggio had studied with other thieves, and he had practiced memorizing rooms by re-arranging the furniture in his own home and then walking through it in the dark. During his first robbery, he injured himself jumping from a two-story window. He had escaped with a valuable drawing, but he had a broken ankle and could not run. He limped in pain for two hours in the dark until he came across a long set of barns. He broke in and realized it was a mushroom factory. He found a till of cash, but he knew the rules of robbery: never steal from where you sleep. He finds a dark space under a cabinet and falls asleep.

The next morning, he feels the brush of a skirt against him and sees a woman standing by the cabinet changing her clothes. He calls to her so as not to scare her, and he tells her he is a thief but he is injured. She laughs at him. He asks her to please bring him some food, some chicken. He has been craving chicken ever since he tried to catch one to eat it after his injury. She tells him her name is Gianetta. The next day, she brings him a meal of chicken, salad, milk and banana cake. He thinks it is the worst cake he’s ever eaten, but he’s grateful for the food. Gianetta tells him the only way to sneak him out is to dress him as a woman. As she shaves his face the next day, she kisses him.

The next section brings us back to Caravaggio at the cottage. He climbs on the roof of Anne’s boat house, and watches her writing through the window. He feels like he has invaded a very private act of hers as he watches her write. He finds the phone wires and sees that the main house is empty, so he goes in and uses the phone. He calls Gianetta, who we gather became his wife. When he hangs up, Anne is standing there. She asks him why he didn’t just find her to ask to use the phone instead of breaking in. He says it’s a habit. She offers him food and they talk about their lives over the kitchen table. She tells him she has a son and a husband who are coming the next day. He tells her about his escape, and she laughs at his story.

Caravaggio goes back to Gianetta and drinks milk in the darkened hallway before Gianetta finds him. They make love in the kitchen, breaking plates and spilling things everywhere. There is the hint of their first meeting with their lovemaking ending as their love began, with her words, “here comes the first kiss.”


This chapter covers a lot of ground, but again, does not move chronologically. The two main stories that characterize Caravaggio from his past are meeting his wife and almost dying in prison. Both of these are told in flashback, in Caravaggio’s memory and in a dream-state.

The first dream state is literally when Caravaggio is falling asleep into dreams at the cottage. The narrator says that thieves never fully sleep, “that’s why they are always tired.” And with that, we enter an italicized section where Caravaggio is sinking in a river. We never know whether this is a literal memory or only metaphorical as he “sinks” into sleep. The dream-state sequence moves from the river, to the sensations of being blindfolded and his throat cut, to drowning in the river, to the pain of the throat cutting, with Patrick’s square-dance calls interjected inbetween. Ondaatje is re-creating the actual experience at a sensory level using images and the five senses without exposition, rather than describing it at the removed level of a third person narrator. In this way, the reader feels and experiences the event more fully.

The flashback of the first robbery is very long, and is so vividly written that the reader could forget that it is a flashback, and that Caravaggio is still stranded at the cottages, trying to get home. The effect of telling his meeting of Gianetta before he phones her is to have the reader be able to feel their reuniting more fully when it occurs in the next section.

The scene with Anne in her house parallels the flashback of Caravaggio’s first meeting with Gianetta. Both are women who find Caravaggio invading their space without warning, but both women are not afraid of him. Gianetta even asks, “Why am I not afraid of you?” This shows Caravaggio as a gentle person, and not dangerous, despite his profession. His profession is only that – something he had to learn and practice and become good at doing, just like any other profession.

When Caravaggio reunites with Gianetta, their passion is not described in exposition, rather it is presented in image after image, with sensory details such as sound (crashing), taste (cold wine from the refrigerator drank while making love), the scent of “soaps in her hair,” and the feeling of the broken plate that causes a cut on Gianetta’s foot, and the earring of hers that comes loose and which she pushes into Caravaggio’s shoulder. Again, these snippets of sense and image are Ondaatje’s intent to create a dream-like style as devoid of narrative exposition as possible, so that the reader experiences and feels the events rather than intellectualizes them.

The scene of their lovemaking starts with Caravaggio drinking milk in the hallway in the dark, the white substance disappearing into his body. It is a vivid visual image, cinematic. The chapter ends with this image again, back to the time when Gianetta found him in the hallway, before they made love, even though the love-making scene has been presented already. Ondaatje achieves this doubling back in time without any markers or exposition, just an image as a signal. In this way, perception, imagery, and senses are the only “structure” to the story, not time or logic.