Saturday, August 04, 2007


Sometimes reading what people like to call a “literary” novel can feel too much like a sterile exercise, a technical scavenger hunt for piled up metaphors, architectural sleights of hand, and cleverly convoluted symbols, all rising like great monoliths existing to showcase a virtuoso’s shrewd finesse. [ Like this last sentence of mine is, here].
And when you are done with such a novel, though you may be left with a hefty appreciation for the writer’s command of language, his tricks of technique, and cleverness of structure, little else may remain, making you wish for more matter with less art, more heart.

Michael Ondaatje, however, is a writer who bestows it all.
In Divisadero, he pulls off one of the most elaborately woven and beautiful chunks of prose I have ever read – yet thrilling enough in plot and characterization to make me yearn to hibernate into a greedy, page-flipping monster, immobilized for 273 pages, willingly held under his thrall. My one regret is that I did not do this. I read it in sporadic chunks, pre-occupied with a party-riddled vacation time. But he made me want sobriety and squint-eyed focus! That is genius!
And still…. STILL… [wobbly and all]… I loved what got through to me!

In Divisadero Ondaatje serves up a healthy, caloric portion of The Two Reasons I read:
First, to find myself engrossed in the characters’ lives to the point where I wonder what they’re up to as I am paying my online bills or sponging up Jack’s latest hairball.

And second, to lose myself in the exquisite craft of the work – its syntax, language, narrative structures – its art. There are times when, with an author like Ondaatje, I will read and re-read sentences and paragraphs for the adventure alone.
I would re-read them if they were disconnected, and out of context. How much moreso when they are fitting into a work of art.
As for the first reason, [the characters] Divisadero, which is separated into three parts, offers a generously drawn cast, beginning with sisters Anna and Claire and their adopted brother Coop, in a barn burner of a plot.
All parts are narrated by Anna, though her voice at times quietly slides into others’ frames of mind. The story at first is mostly hers, remembering herself at 16, when her sexual attraction to Coop is – violently - discovered by her father.

It is a discovery that lights a chain of events that maps out the novel’s main plot and ends up affecting not only the lives of this family, but those of a web of characters who converge with them.

Convergence and separation become strong metaphors in the book, which initially follows the fates of Claire, Coop, and Anna over the course of the next several years. Ondaatje outlines themes of alienation and grief in this broken family, now attempting to escape their past, yet bumping into it at every turn.
It is how that past informs the present that seems to most intrigue Ondaatje as he guides the reader through circuitous avenues of luminous language to explore not only the past of his narrator but also that of Lucien Segura, a writer whose history contains echoes and reverberations of Anna’s own life. Like Anna’s, Segura’s past haunts and ultimately shapes both his life and his art.

As a research archivist who searches for hints to Segura’s life while she is living in France in what was once his home, Anna comes to see that no moment of our lives exists by itself, isolated. She realizes that there is nothing without a context, which we ourselves often furnish through our limited and subjective perspectives.
She likens the ever present past to a poetic form: “It’s like a villanelle, this inclination of going back to events in our past, the way the villanelle’s form refuses to move forward in linear development, circling instead at those familiar moments of emotion.”

Such references to art dot the landscape of the book. There are allusions to Nabokov, Dumas, Nietzsche, as well as descriptions of the artistic process itself: “I love the performance of a craft,” Segura says, “whether it is modest or mean-spirited, yet I walk away when discussions of it begin. . . I am interested only in the care taken, and those secret rehearsals behind it.”
Ondaatje’s craft, though certainly guided by the meticulous care Segura describes, yet remains unobtrusive, unaffected, and perhaps even secret until it is carefully examined upon re-reading, whereupon one sees that Lucien’s story sits gingerly atop Anna’s, becoming an enriching layer that subtly mirrors and elaborates Anna’s story as it unravels his own.

For me, it was this echoing of theme and image that came to be a most brilliant part of a book I found to be overflowing with brilliance.
A treacherous water tank in one plotline becomes a towering church belfry in the next; a runaway horse recurs in the two main stories; images of birdsong, cats, travel, water - all develop in recursive, softly entwining themes. And all are conveyed with the lightest of hand.

There is no scarcity of idea here as Ondaatje explores the mysteries of identity, and the interplay of reality and imagination, ambiguities of love, and particularly, it seemed to me, the subjective and deeply personal role that memory plays in shaping a person’s perspective of life.

In an interview, Ondaatje once remarked of his give-and-take structure in revealing character incrementally, “As a writer, one is busy with archaeology. It's what the writer does with any character. On one level you're moving forward, but in the other, you're revealing the past."

In a scene toward the end of the novel, a fox – which has been obliquely alluded to throughout the book – finally appears in full color. The narrator’s father has been walking the property of his farm when a fox begins running lightly up and down behind him.
The narrator says, “my father, looking the other way, ambled down into the valley,” but soon, “sensing something was wrong, paused. He turned then and saw it, and began to walk backwards, cautiously, keeping it in view, the fox moving with its light step as if mocking him, back and forth, back and forth, on a different tangent.”
Depending upon what you fancy in your fiction, that scene – a scrutinized fox weaving a delicate back and forth motion – may be just a fox.
But, the scene may also be a concrete representation of one of the book’s central ideas, namely → Though life may seem to be walked through in a linear pattern, we are in fact being constantly shaped and re-formatted by our experiences - our failures, our passions, and our imperfectly observed memories.

Whichever interpretation you choose, rest assured that it is still going to provide satisfying reading because in Divisadero Ondaatje has given us a beauty of a book committed to exposing even the most mundane of subjects in a way that makes you reel with love for them.

Then… BUY IT!



Merisi said...

Thanks, Cip, for these wonderful review. Each and every book of Ondaatje is brilliant, yet different, this one sounds as if he has produced a master work.
Now I hope, my little one is able to get a copy for me before she leaves the States.

Merisi said...

for this ...

cipriano said...

Hope you are doing fine Merisi. You who are living in what always seems to be the most beautiful and caloric portion of the entire Earth.
If any of you have not yet visited Merisi's blogsite showcasing Vienna, click on her name now. It is amazing. Every picture a postcard!

Beth said...

I have the book - will be reading it soon. Probably sooner after this review.

(Your review was so well written.)

Matt said...

What a thorough, thoughtful review.

I like the phrase "cleverness of structure", and this is how a book engrosses me. I love his style in English Patient and Anil's Ghost, in which current narrative and flashback are woven into very beautiful prose. I guess I'll get to Divisadero sooner than I have anticipated.

Melanie said...

What a marvellous review. It makes me want to go get the book right now! I've heard various opinions of this one, but your comprehensive review explains what is so good about it, and makes me want to read it myself.

cipriano said...

Thank you all for your lovely comments.
While you all order this book, I am going to suggest that you also order my current read... Milan Kundera's [1990] Immortality.
Superb, superb, book!

Geza said...

Just finished reading the book 20 minutes before this post. In reading Ondaatje's novels, I always have the distinct sense that he is first and foremost a poet, that even his narrative structures are essentially poetical rather than novelistic. Nevertheless there are strong linear storytelling lines in this book. Plot questions like what happeened to Coop and Clairecan only be answered through these poetical structures, which he outlines explicitly in the text. A unique artistic voice.

cipriano said...

Thank you for your comment, Geza.
Definitely, Ondaatje's prose is poetic!
All the best to you.
-- Cip