It’s hard to remember what to expect of an author when he takes seven or eight years between books. But with Michael Ondaatje, I always get the impression that it was time productively spent, as he brings his poet’s skills to the novel, without sacrificing storytelling or character. And so seven years after Anil’s Ghost (which itself was eight years after his Booker-winning breakthrough The English Patient), we have Divisadero. I hope his publishers had a stiff drink handy when he told them the title.
Anyway, it was worth the wait: Divisadero goes placidly amid the noise and haste of contemporary fiction and ploughs its own furrow. It is a book to savour slowly and become immersed in, and only occasionally does it drift from artful to artificial, such as when Ondaatje takes time to explain the title (“Divisadero, from the Spanish word for ‘division’ … Or it might derive from the word ‘divisar,’ meaning ‘to gaze at something from a distance'”).
Most of the book is taken up with the stories of Anna, Coop and Claire. Anna and Claire are daughters of a man who lost his wife in childbirth, one born and one adopted (“to put it brutally, they owed him a wife, they owed him something”), and Coop the hired hand a few years older than the girls. When the father discovers Anna and Coop in bed together, he inflicts a terrible punishment which, Anna later says, “set fire to the rest of my life.” The scene is so well done that it is brutal and beautiful at the same time.
Then Ondaatje flips between the three, showing us not only that “we simply respond, go this way or that by accident, survive or improve by the luck of the draw” but also that “there is the 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.” To fulfil this promise, Ondaatje ensures that every character is intricate and identifiable: even characters who appear for only a few pages are vivid. One, in the scenes where Coop learns how to become “an undiscovered cardsharp,” is “The Dauphin, so named because he had been seen reading a European novel.” Another is “in sandals and beads, flash-frozen in the sixties.” The attention to detail extends to passing settings: a military base “like a suburb of the moon.”
The settings vary from Las Vegas casinos to a French writer’s retreat. Anna, Coop and Claire may be apart, but “their lives, surely, remained linked, wherever they were.” The themes come thick and fast, or rather thick and slow, and Ondaatje crams a good deal into each short scene, on subjects that illuminate ideas (loyalty, creativity, family) just as they illustrate the characters:
In the past Rafael had travelled from village to village, argued a salary, invented melodies, stolen chords, slashed the legs off an old song to use just the torso – but he had come to love now most of all the playing of music with no one there. Could you waste your life on a gift? If you did not use your gift, was it a betrayal?
The biggest surprise is when Ondaatje leaves his main trio of characters behind for most of the last third of the novel, instead writing about and around someone who until then has been an offstage presence. It shouldn’t be a surprise since previously we have had reference to “a three-panelled Japanese screen, each one self-sufficient, but revealing different qualities or tones when placed beside the others.” This section brings new resonances to the subjects of, among others, fatherhood and the discovery by parents of their childrens’ “adult needs,” and the final pages bring to Divisadero an almost symphonic close. Nonetheless I missed Anna, Coop and Claire, which is a measure of how well Ondaatje had made me enjoy their company until then.