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Divisadero

by Michael Ondaatje

Readers of Michael Ondaatje’s work will find two familiar voices competing for space on the pages of Divisadero. There is the Ondaatje of the earlier novels and poem sequences, the craftsman who found poetry and play in the violence and creativity of such real and imagined misfits as Billy the Kid, Buddy Bolen, and the mysterious thief Caravaggio.

And then there is the voice of the other Ondaatje, which dominated the narratives of The English Patient and Anil’s Ghost: ponderous, incantatory, and deadly serious, straining to find aesthetic and moral weight in every eyelash and drop of rain.

Both voices achieve truly unique literary effects, but how much joy you take from Divisadero may have everything to do with which you prefer. Fans of voice number one may be in trouble here.

The first of Divisadero’s multiple plotlines finds Ondaatje balancing those two styles as he introduces a family living in northern California in the 1970s. The family consists of a widowed father and his two daughters: Anna, his biological daughter, and Claire, an orphan whom he took home from the hospital with Anna (whose mother died in childbirth).

Living with them on the farm is Coop, a farmhand whose own family was murdered by a hired hand when he was a boy. Coop’s obsession with the Gold Rush panhandlers who settled the area eventually leads him into another Wild West: the gambling parlours of Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe. But first, he bides his time with the sisters, both of whom look up to him as a kind of surrogate parent and guide to the mysteries of the surrounding wilderness. But when the 15-year-old Anna takes him as her lover, she sets into motion a series of violent events that will splinter the family.

These early sections showcase the novel’s strengths. The writing, at its best, is both faultlessly rhythmic and jarring, as Ondaatje juxtaposes the inner and outer worlds of his characters with the imaginative associations generated by the history-soaked hills of California. In doing this, he creates a dreamlike effect that quietly underscores one of the novel’s central themes, the importance of memory and the need to preserve and revisit it within an interior space.

Ondaatje anchors the family dynamics in believable, stark drama and in the startling imagery for which he is justly renowned. Anna can only be affectionate with her father “in that no-man’s-land between tiredness and sleep,” when she lies in his arms “like a slim dog.” Coop, fixing a hole inside a water tower, gives “a false, theatrical laugh and luxuriate[s] inside the echo.”

But a creeping preciousness, a tendency to saturate the prose with earnest, poetic sentiment, hijacks the novel as the action moves away from the family into the life of Anna, who flees the farm after her father catches her having sex with Coop. Truths amply demonstrated by character, imagery, and action are repeatedly double-underlined for the reader with ponderous philosophical generalizations such as “There is the hidden presence of others in us, even those we have known briefly.”

The book also attempts to universalize the rarefied, very literary inner worlds of its characters, as in Claire’s assertion that “we relive stories and see ourselves only as the watcher or listener, the drummer in the background keeping cadence.” Really? Most of us, in reliving our real-life stories, loom very large over the action, our personal triumphs and wounds always in the foreground.

These gnomic pronouncements pile up as Anna, now an adult, moves to France to research the life of a French poet and adventure-novel author, Lucien Segura. She finds that every square inch of Europe has “touched history or a literature,” a fact the remaining bulk of the novel beats to death with a velvet stick.

Divisadero all but abandons the other, far more interesting character trajectories after Anna meets and beds Rafael, a half-gypsy guitarist whose “tough fingers would tug the heart out of his guitar.” The affair, and the subsequent reconstruction of Segura’s life and work, read like an idealized literary tour through the aesthetic joys of the Old World, with its operatic love affairs and tragedies, its fruit orchards and gypsy caravans, its half-mad novelists and poets. Church towers and fields generate poetic feelings in labourers and poets alike. A clockmaker loves “the grandeur of Victor Hugo.” One boy learns to “distinguish the voices of each field,” while another reads the classics of French literature to an illiterate farmer, ennobling both their souls. This fetishization of European high culture will leave many readers longing for the sheer recklessness of Coop’s Lake Tahoe exploits, not to mention the exploits of all those Billy the Kids who preceded him.