Paula's Reviews > Divisadero

Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje
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Aug 13, 11

bookshelves: fiction, second-or-third-time-around
Read from August 10 to 13, 2011

I have been thinking about Juanita's WWII criticism, but it seems to me that history in general plays very much in the background in this novel, despite the fact that both the Gulf War, the bombing of Baghdad in 2003 & WWI are specifically mentioned.  War is just war here.  Vietnam, for example, is also glossed over (Aldo Vea, the public defender & Claire's boss, is a veteran of that war &, in "real life," wrote a great novel, The Gods Go Begging, about it, but I don't remember whether or not Ondaatje mentions Vietnam in conjunction with Vea here).  In any case, both geography and history, place and time, are very fluid in this novel. Ondaatje's use of place names and references to a few historical events is deceptive.  I continue to have trouble with the location of the Petaluma ranch, which seems to lie on a ridge above both Nicasio and Glen Ellen (I took out a local map & still couldn't get that to make sense).  Then I realized that his Northern California geography is perhaps just as purposely unreliable as his French geography.   I think the same is true for time. I had difficulty figuring out characters' ages in relation to events. At first it seems that Claire & Anna were born in the late forties, perhaps early fifties, but then, later in the book (2003) Claire should be older than she seems to be.  Specifically, as regards WWII, that war is embodied in the character of Raphael's father (Astolphe, Liebaud), the man of shifting names, who seems to me to be none other than Caravaggio from In the Skin of the Lion and The English Patient (Astolphe is a thief from another country who teaches Raphael English).
My problem, if it is one, with the novel is that all the characters, both male and female, are really the same character.  They all essentially have the same sensibility and speak with the same voice. I find this a bit tiresome. Perhaps it is Ondaatje's way of presenting the "universality" of desire, of intimacy & the impossibility of intimacy, or even of fully knowing oneself.  Or perhaps it is an overly intrusive "poetic" device (Ondaatje's prose is awash in lyrical language).

More thoughts gleaned from notes from my first reading of the novel in 2007:
Many readers appear to be frustrated by the unfinished nature of the twin narratives here, particularly the story of Cooper and Claire. Although I too am curious, I am not troubled. I do think that Ondaatje “un-finishes” this narrative in perhaps too adamant or too contrived a fashion. In the sense that it reads as if he intended not to finish it rather than that the story itself would not allow itself to end.
Ondaatje talks about the relationship between poetry and novel-writing. In many ways, his novels have become increasingly “traditional.” In books such as Billy the Kid, Coming Through Slaughter, Running in the Family and even The English Patient and Anil’s Ghost, his texts are more hybrid in nature. The idea of parallel narratives is certainly not a new one. Poetry does motivate Ondaatje’s syntax and use of image in his prose. In any paragraph, there will be narrative, strictly prose elements and then sentences or phrases that function as poetry (not moving the story along nor even revealing character), just there to be admired. For instance, the very last sentence in the novel: “Some birds in the almost-dark are flying as close to their reflections as possible.”
In one sense, this echoes the motif of twinning in the novel. Isn’t a twin a reflection after all? You look in the mirror and you see someone who is you and then not quite you, but some one other.

Motifs:
Accidents, injuries, diseases that maim or wound permanently: Claire’s “limp” from childhood polio; Lucien’s missing eye after an attack by a mad dog and a splinter of glass gets embedded in his eye;

Attacks by animals: mad dog attack on Lucien; mad horse attack on Claire and Anna

Injuries inflicted by humans: their father’s beating of Coop after he discovers Anna and Coop together, Anna sticking a shard of glass into her father’s back (like the shard of glass in Lucien’s eye); Roman attacking men of whom he is jealous, which lands him in prison and then the army during WWI; Coop beaten up by three men in Tahoe, which causes him to suffer amnesia

Tending to the injured: Claire rescues Coop twice, first, from the cabin after he is beaten up by their father, second, from the house at Lake Tahoe, after he is beaten up by the three men; Marie-Neige tends to Lucien’s eye after he’s attacked by the dog; Lucien dreams that M-N tends to him when he is delirious from diphtheria at the hospital during the war; Lucien hallucinates that he is tending to M-N when he returns to the farm after the war; the next day he learns that she died during the war.

More parallels: Anna & Claire both become investigators of a sort, one an archivist, the other the assistant to a public defender; they are both looking for people; in a sense Cooper, the cardsharp “mechanic” is a thief similar to Astolphe/ Liebaud, the “thief”

Mistaken identity: Cooper mistakes Anna for Claire when he picks her up after the horse attack; Cooper mistakes Claire for Anna when he is suffering amnesia; Marie-Neige mistakes Lucien for Roman in Lucien’s hallucination after his return home from WWI.

Changing names: Raphael’s father, Liebaud/Astolphe, changes his name frequently; Lucien Segura writes his series of Roman adventure novels as La Garonne, Anna changes her name after running away from Petaluma, but we never learn her new name.

Fathers: Claire, Anna, and Cooper’s father; Lucien’s missing biological father and his stepfather who dies four years after Lucien and his mother come to live with him; from him Lucien inherits Marseillan, Lucien as “failed” father to his daughters Lucette and Therese, yet father-figure or uncle-figure to Raphael; Raphael’s father Astolphe who, similarly to Lucien, leaves his wife and children in another country to be with Aria.

Mothers: Raphael’s mother Aria, the singer and gypsy; Lucien’s mother Odile, who teaches Marie-Neige how to read and teaches both Lucien and Marie-Neige how to dance: Anna's mother, who died in childbirth.

Siblings: Claire & Anna, Lucette & Therese. Claire, Anna & Cooper; Lucien & Marie-Neige (Only Lucette & Therese are siblings by virtue of having the same birth parents). Interestingly, there are no brother/brother relationships in the novel.

Raphael’s father Astolphe is another Caravaggio, the character from Ondaatje's previous novels In the Skin of the Lion and The English Patient.
Cooper is a boy straight out of Cormac McCarthy, especially the boy in All the Pretty Horses.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Juanita Rice In the end, we do have different reactions to the treatment of history in the book, but although I am more critical of the omission of World War II when Ondaatje relates so much "history" of the Romanies, in the end I seem to have enjoyed the book even more, when it comes to your 3-star "liked" to my 4-star "really liked. What you say about history as the backdrop is true, but it is the backdrop which so much influences these characters' separations from each other..the French novelist Lucien is estranged from his family by his love for the woman widowed by WWI and presumably dying of starvation from that cause. Claire, Anna & Cooper live apart because of a historical act of violence. Did you note that Claire and Anna are names, as"Clara" and "Hana,"to both The English Patient and Skin of the Lion; in fact, the Claire (Clara) and Hana (Anna) both inhabit both of those books. Hmm. Don't they? I sent my English Patient to a friend.
Your bracketing of the final sentence of the book rang a beautiful bell in my memory of it.


Paula You perhaps enjoyed the "poetry" of the prose more than I did, which might account for your higher ranking. I hadn't thought of the Clara and Hana echo, but it makes sense, just as Astolphe/Liebaud is either Caravaggio or his double.


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