Booksmart: Michael Ondaatje’s ‘Divisadero’ looks back through a lens slivered

Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje

Nietzsche, a lover of aphorisms and words, once said, “We have art so that we shall not be destroyed by the truth.” This quote is found at the beginning and toward the end of Michael Ondaatje’s latest novel, and it frames the story. Ondaatje is best known for his 1992 award-winning novel “The English Patient.” Like the preceding novel, “Divisadero” also recounts the story of many lives and takes place in two seemingly different worlds.

Anna, Claire and Coop grow up together on a farm in 1970s California. They’re a makeshift family sewn together by Anna’s father. Coop, four years older than the girls, is the lone survivor after his parents are viciously murdered by robbers. Anna’s parents take him in. Claire and Anna are born on the same day, both of their mothers dying in childbirth. Anna’s father decides to take Claire home, compensating for the loss of his young wife and Claire’s lack of any family. All three have a sibling relationship, although Anna and Claire hold a fascination for quiet Coop. Events are brutally changed after the father catches Anna and Coop lying together after making love at the ripe ages of 16 and 20, respectively.

Anna runs away, and, nearly 20 years later, she gets involved in researching and translating the works of novelist Lucien Segura. She stays in the last home of Segura in Demu, France, and meets a musician named Rafael, who in his childhood grew up near Segura’s home in the fields, with his gypsy mother and his thief father. Meanwhile, Coop, who also fled the farm the same day as Anna, makes his way to Tahoe and plunges into the life of a gambler and card mechanic. Claire, still in touch with the father who adopted her, works for a public offender and has a fateful encounter with Coop in Santa Maria, roughly around the same time Anna is in Demu. And that’s just part of the story.

The novel is sectioned in three parts, the first chronicling the lives of Anna, Claire and Coop, while the second is a medley of California and France, as Anna learns about Rafael’s family after they become lovers, and she flinchingly mulls over her past. The third goes back in time, an excavation of Segura’s life and families.

At first, it seems that these three families shouldn’t have anything in common, except for the frail thread of Anna connecting them. Yet Ondaatje seals their bond with numerous submerging and surfacing themes — orphanage, art, the natural world, human nature, isolation, self-denial, parentage, addiction, language, memory, violence, deformities, the complication of relationships between three people, and living through someone else’s life, whether it be through a book or archives.

“Divisadero” is a physical place — the street where Segura’s last and Anna’s current residence is on — and a human-made abstract; a rough translation is “to look back at a distance” in Spanish.

Anna speculates that life is really a kaleidoscopic windmill; one is always moving forward but going backward in fractured memory and history. Even though the novel seems chaotic and fragmented, Ondaatje keeps this thesis prevalent in the circling of the characters’ lives. The narrator constantly changes — some chapters Anna is reporting, while at others an anonymous third person does the storytelling in no sequential order. The dialogue abruptly transforms with quotations to no quotations, making the reader feel like he is insulated in someone’s mind and at other times a mere spectator, creating an aesthetic of an internal and external world — fundamentally imitating the way one experiences life. Ondaatje’s fiction is also a marriage of poetry and prose, and it seems like it doesn’t want to divorce from literary or genre, having many qualities of magical realism such as jumping through time and questioning fate.

“The English Patient” took on themes of a post-colonial nature, underscoring the binary differences and similarities of the East and West with the Eastern title character and a sapper named Kip, who were surrounded by Westerners in a desert during World War I. In “Divisadero,” Anna escapes the “New World” of the United States and finds refuge in the “Old World” of France. Other oppositions are explored in the novel as well, such as literacy vs. illiteracy, nature vs. human nature, and self-preservation vs. trusting our hearts of glass in others’ hands.

If you are looking for a satisfying ending, don’t count on one. While Segura’s life is snuggly tied with a beginning, middle and end, the rest of the characters fade into ambiguous obscurity. The payoff of “Divisadero” comes from discovering the ties that bind all of the characters and how, in our own way, we plunge into the messiness of life even though we try to shield ourselves from it.

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