Roger Brunyate's Reviews > Divisadero

Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje
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it was amazing
bookshelves: rural-america

A Poetic Diptych

Michael Ondaatje is a poet, and even as a novelist he writes as one. I don't mean simply his mastery of the English language; that is a given. At times, he is almost Olympian, as when describing the metamorphosis of a marriage: "There would be years of compatibility, and then bitterness, and who knew when that line was traversed, on what night, at what hour. Over what betrayal. They slipped over this as over a faint rise in the road, like a small vessel crossing the equator unaware, so that in fact their whole universe was now upside down." But he can switch effortlessly to the here and now, describing a fight in a thunderstorm, or a poker game in a casino, with an immediacy that makes the writing almost invisible. He can conjure up images that fix themselves indelibly on the cinema of the mind (or on the big screen, as anybody who has seen the movie of The English Patient will know); my favorite is a two-page description of a gypsy boy and his horse caught in a total eclipse in the South of France. One sentence must suffice: "Grey rain started falling in the half-light, though it was the wind that bewildered everything, arcing the trees down so they hovered almost parallel to the ground."

Ondaatje cannot describe what happens without also evoking how it feels. But he seldom attempts to describe a feeling directly. Rather, he creates something else to stand beside it, illuminating it by association, from the side rather than full on. A simple example is the consummation of the marriage between a French peasant, Roman, and his very young bride. He goes out in the moonlight to wash in the rain barrel outside the cottage door; after a while, she follows him and washes also. "After that she turned and put her arms out along the thick rim of the barrel where in the water was the moon and the ghost of her face. Roman moved against her, and in the next while, whatever surprise there was, whatever pain, there was also the frantic moon in front of her shifting and breaking into pieces in the water." In terms of narrative, Ondaatje could have set this scene anywhere, or omitted it entirely; but in terms of its place in the emotional balance of the whole novel, nothing else would have been so powerful or so evocative. Images of this kind, based on imagination rather than logic, are the essence of Ondaatje's poetic sensibility.

What of the story? The back-cover blurb is true as far as it goes: "In the 1970s in Northern California a father and his teenage daughters, Anna and Claire, work their farm with the help of Coop, an enigmatic young man who makes his home with them. Theirs is a makeshift family, until it is shattered by an incident of violence that sets fire to the rest of their lives… . As the narrative moves back and forth through time and place, we find each of these characters trying to gain some foothold in a present shadowed by the past." After the violent beginning (whose nature I shall not reveal), the story moves forward several decades, though with frequent flashbacks. Coop, private and principled and extremely likeable, has unexpectedly become a professional gambler. Claire is a legal aide in San Francisco; her path will eventually re-cross his, bringing about a sort of partial ending two-thirds of the way through the book. Anna has become an author under a different name, writing biographies (or biographical novels; it is never quite clear) about minor French literary figures. Currently, she is working on a poet called Lucien Segura, and staying in the house where he spent his last years; these scenes in a remote part of Southern France make a wonderful contrast to those in California and Nevada.

But just where you might expect Ondaatje to pull everything together, he drops Coop, Claire, and Anna almost entirely, and starts a new set of stories about Segura's younger years, his loves and marriage, his experiences in the First World War, and the gypsy family he befriends when he buries himself in his last retreat. The whole texture of the book changes. These are engaging vignettes, created in short chapters, poetical and imagistic rather than factual, and this reader was soon swept up in them as though by a new novel. Indeed, I found that I couldn't stop reading once this section had started, partly out of sheer affection for the characters and delight in the writing, but partly to discover how Ondaatje would finally tie the two parts of the book together. Somewhere along the line, I began to realize that he wouldn't—except in the sense that Segura's story was essentially being told (or perhaps invented) by Anna, in much the same way that the story of the two lovers in Ian McEwan's Atonement is extended in the writing of the younger sister Briony. So far from this being a single sweeping canvas, as the cover suggests, it is constructed as a diptych: two separate panels (Ondaatje himself uses this image, in a different context) that enter into a dialogue with each other rather than connecting directly.

Divisadero? There is a street of that name in San Francisco, where Anna apparently lived for a while, but the novel does not take place there. The sense of the word as "division" or "break" is obviously appropriate for this family parted by passion and scattered through space. But Anna points out that the word may also derive from the Spanish "divisar," to look at something from a distance. By the end of the book, Anna is indeed looking on from a distance, exploring her life in art, as Nietzsche once said, so as not to be destroyed by the truth. This is essentially what any great novelist does, and with it Ondaatje invites the reader into the heart of his craft. Yet he gives us an even greater gift; by avoiding literal connections between his two stories, but instead inspiring our imagination and trusting us to find our own parallels, he gets us not only to read his words as a poet, but to think and feel as poets in ourselves.
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Reading Progress

June 12, 2008 – Started Reading
June 15, 2008 – Finished Reading
May 1, 2016 – Shelved
July 27, 2017 – Shelved as: rural-america

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