Sunday, November 8, 2009

Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero



Divisadero, as its clunky Spanish title unintentionally implies, will divide your opinion at the same time it hovers in the memory long after you finish. Magnificent as well as overblown; embarrassing, yet also intense and ultimately moving; filled with moments that belong in a Mills & Boon romance counter-pointed by mind-blowing feats of linguistic energy and narrative multiplication.

It's a wonder someone can be this great and so lushly bad all at once. What you can't fault Michael Ondaatje on is his ambition – and the restlessness beneath it.

My first impression on finishing this book, though, was strangely extra-literary. What is it about suicide that so obsesses Michael Ondaatje? All through his novels there is a fascination with self annihilation, with the urge, at best, to disappear and reinvent another life, or give one-self up to destructive fates.

According to Anna, his main narrator in Divisadero, “sometimes we enter art to hide within it. It is where we can go to save ourselves, where a third person voice protects us.” If that is so, it’s the dark stuff at the root of - and increasingly hidden by - Ondaatje’s florid gifts that may well decide what it is you prefer to draw from this book.

Will it be the deep violence and fragmentary accelerations; or the beautiful poetics and romantic lattices of plotting and character? Is it the early, wild, unsettling Ondaatje of Coming through Slaughter (1976) you like most? Or the later, lyrically rich Ondaatje of The English Patient (1992), the Booker Prize winning novel, and then film, that made him a literary superstar?

In Divisadero those preferences can be measured almost entirely along gender lines: by whether you favour the parallel tales of Anna or Coop. Anna is an academic researching the life of a deceased poet and novelist called Lucien Segura while staying at his deserted manoir in rural France. Coop is a cardsharp who misadventures among ‘60s dropouts (“hippies are living proof that cowboys still fuck the buffalo”) in the casinos of Tahoe, Nevada.

Inevitably Anna and Coop’s thoughts turn to each other and their upbringing on a Californian farm in the 1970s. Divisadero opens with a winter reverie of this farm as Anna watches her adopted sister Claire riding in the snow as “she persuades the horse down through the whiteness alongside crowded trees”. We meet the girls’ father, a stoic widower who allows rare moments of intimacy when he falls asleep on the sofa and Anna climbs up beside him to “lie like a slim dog in his arms”.

The choice of language is typical Ondaatje: ‘persuades’, ‘like a slim dog’... here is a writer who uses every note musically, who can knock you sideways with a single word, and most certainly a phrase.

As teenagers Anna and Claire form a love triangle of sorts with Coop, who is just a few years older and lives and works on the farm. Their world is shattered when the girls’ father finds one of them together with the boy. We flee with all three into adulthood, and from the scattered vantage points of Anna’s literary research in France, Coop’s gambling adventures in Nevada and Claire’s work as a legal investigator in San Francisco we re-gather who they were and what they have become.

Depending on whether you define Ondaatje’s first book The Collected Works of Billy the Kid as a novel or a narrative collection of poetry (it was subtitled ‘Left Hand Poems’ so that probably decides the matter), Divisadero ranks as his fifth novel. Born in Sri Lanka and educated in England before emigrating to Canada at age 21, Ondaatje seemed at the apex of a re-appraisal of narrative strategies and novelistic form when he burst on the scene with Billy the Kid (1970) and then the remarkable Coming Through Slaughter (1976), an imagined autobiography of the life of the early jazz musician Billy Bolden: “When he bought a cornet he’d shine it up and make it glisten like a woman’s leg.”

In a discontinuous method that was similar to Billy the Kid, Ondaatje tracked Bolden’s descent into madness and obscurity through a mix of poetry, narrative, song, photographs and documentary fragments. Coming through Slaughter remains the author’s trimmest and most shattered, as well as shattering work. At least some its energy undoubtedly derives from rumors of a personal breakdown and the end of his first marriage at the time it was written.

Ondaatje followed through with Running in the Family (1986). Part memoir, part dream of return to his boyhood home in Sri Lanka, this non-fiction work showed Ondaatje tracking down the ghosts of his family in what was once known as ‘Ceylon’ – and, of course, the stories and memories he had grown up with or tried to repress, most of all the exploits of his alcoholic father. It is one of the best ‘travel’ books ever written, overflowing with the sensual beauty of Sri Lanka, a country whose outline the author compares to “the shape of a tear”.

Since those books Ondaatje’s novels have grown larger, richer, more ambitious and inevitably more frustrating. Set in the 1930s and ‘40s of Toronto, Canada, In the Skin of the Lion (1987) broke him to an international audience with its streaming paens to work, love, dynamiting, bridge-building and the lives bound up in the monuments and history of a city. Arriving on the heels of Running in the Family it also marked a more fluid voice for Ondaatje, moving away from his devastatingly fractured early style and a focus on individuals into what he now termed “an interest in community”.



The English Patient would go on to confirm as one of the world’s leading novelists, submerging – or is that refining? – his early radical style even further. It’s now been seven years since Anil’s Ghost, Ondaatje’s last novel, which felt in many ways like a re-write of The English Patient - more controlled, better edited, and somehow less energetic despite the obvious commitment behind it.

Ondaatje still seems to be trying to get out of his narrative cul de sac in Divisadero, though it feels much closer to a breakthrough than Anil’s Ghost ever did. Yet he retreats into scenes and themes so familiar we’d accuse another writer of plagiarism if they tried it: a deserted house that is occupied temporarily (like the villa in The English Patient); an aerial scene that involves architecture and a rope harness (like the bridge building in In The Skin of the Lion, or the mural scene in The English Patient); the use of a past story and a damaged mentor to overlap a present tale (again, like The English Patient).

You put down Divisadero a little stunned by this almost gratuitous and unnecessary repetition. Pondering the reverberations of an overheard radio broadcast in Divisadero where the author of Sophie’s Choice is heard to say, “You know I think I have already written the most intimate and profound book I will ever be able to write. I don’t think I can go as far as that again. From now I should try comedy. Comedy is not easy, I know. But at least it is not the same road.”

It could be that the poet in Ondaatje is so trapped by his own particular obsessions with image and metaphor that he can no longer support his narrative interests as a novelist. And yet Ondaatje is notorious for his depth of research, be it the five years he spent at perusing the journals of explorers in the library of the Royal Geographic Society for The English Patient, or the time he has clearly spent among gamblers to gain a working grasp of Texas Hold ‘Em poker for Divisadero.

Certainly Coop’s story forms the most compelling thread of Ondaatje’s latest book. And though background broadcasts of the First Gulf War and the Iraq invasion feel forced as a political theme, it’s thrilling to see Ondaatje engage with contemporary American culture in a way that’s reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s highly paced moves in No Country for Old Men. Let’s put it frankly: Ondaatje’s best writing has always been connected to his American obsessions – the American West, jazz music – rather than his European longings and the cultural self consciousness this can effect in him.

This self conscious note is almost inevitably struck during Anna’s story, reaching absurd lengths when she encounters a gypsy called Rafael whose “pockets always held a few herbs, basil or mint, so he could rip off a heel of bread and create a meal wherever he was.” By the time Rafael is playing guitar like Django Reinhardt and we are meeting his mother ‘Aria’ the whole thing sounds like something dialed in from Gypsy Romance Central.

In these moments we see Ondaatje’s tendency to lean on rich language to do the work that believable character and dialogue are failing to achieve. And yet Ondaatje finally triumphs in this strand too as Anna’s story dissolves into the extended tale of Lucien Segura (or it his tale that dissolves into her telling?) and we witness how the French writer’s childhood, later experiences of war and a frustrated love affair echo all that has later transpired in the lives of Coop, Claire and Anna.

At one point Ondaatje has Anna reflect what could serve as a manifesto for the entire novel, and perhaps all of his work as a writer: “Everything is biographical, Lucien Freud says. What we make, why it is made, how we draw a dog, who it is we are drawn to, why we cannot forget. Everything is collage, even genetics. There is a hidden presence of others in us, even those we have known briefly. We contain them for the rest of our lives, at every border that we cross.”

Ondaatje’s use of over-shadowing, echoing elements of plot and language, along with his sense of psychological collage in the storytelling, are all used in an attempt to bind Divisadero – the results are unsuccessful, though sometimes emotionally powerful.

In the end, however, Divisadero still feels like the work that it is: four novellas woven together to form a literary house of mirrors: from Anna’s stay at the French manoir in all its sensuousness and pretentiousness, to the wild yet overly-compressed gambling stings that Coop is enmeshed in, to Claire’s even sketchier role as a mediator, to the beautifully extended, concluding life of Lucien Segura, and his final observations from a fragile row boat on a pond, of “birds in the almost dark… flying as close to their reflections as possible.”

Much as I was incredibly moved by this closing image, it also signals the romantic narcissism that drowns as much of this book's poetic energy as it releases. Divisadero isn’t just about the divided lives of its antagonists, you see – it’s a reflection of Ondaatje's own profoundly splintered abilities and vision as a poet and a novelist.


- Mark Mordue

* This review was first published in an edited form in the Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum Books, May 19th, 2007.

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