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"Divisadero flows like a symphony of distinct movements." Chicago Sun-Times
"Ondaatje is a master at constructing breathtaking passages." Boston Globe
"Divisadero is art; it is stuffed with unbearable love, and it is magnificent." Miami Herald
"[A] beautifully crafted tale of separated sisters and torn-apart lovers." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
These four responses are typical of the critical responses to reading the latest Ondaajte novel. Similar responses come from listening to the Hope Davis reading of the novel on the Random House Audio version reviewed here. It too "is magnificent."
Michael Ondaatje is the author of four previous novels, a memoir, a nonfiction book on film, and several books of poetry. The English Patient won the Booker Prize; Anil's Ghost won the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, the Giller Prize, and the Prix Médicis. Born in Sri Lanka, he now lives in Toronto.
"The novel as a disguised lyric, a borrowed label for the experimentations of poetic spirits to express their feeling of self and world…" wrote Herman Hesse in 1921, an observation that certainly applies to Divisadero, Michael Ondaatje's fifth novel. In this novel he tells the story of a pair of teenage sisters and their brother-like farmhand whom their father has unofficially adopted. At first we are on a farm in northern California in the 1970s and the book ends with the extended family divided on two separate continents years later. There is a powerful act of love and violence early in the book which changes the story of their lives forever. In telling this complicated story Ondaatje employs his poetic and suggestive style to present a compelling set of characters with crystal clear imagery and a sophisticated tapestry of interwoven time indicators. At times indeed the reader/listener (like Billy Pilgrim) feels unstuck in time.
One result: days after reading or listening to the novel, these characters, Anna, Coop, and Claire will still be with you, their emotions still yours, their losses a reminder that loss is the universal metaphor.
"We have art," Nietzsche says, "so that we shall not be destroyed by the truth." (267) Divisadero is an example of what Nietzsche may have had in mind: a work of art so powerful and so poignant that we are transported out of time and space and into a world of fiction so real as to make us reflect on our own life and relationships. I first met Michael Ondaatje some thirty-five years ago (the fact that I am reviewing his latest novel seems to fit one of the themes of that novel – a connectedness between persons and events that seems more than coincidence) when he came to Malaspina College as part of a Canada Council sponsored tour for poets to read their work at small venues away from the big city. He was a handsome young man with a passion for his poetry, and my teenage daughter immediately "fell in love" with him (or his poetry). He stayed with us that night as part of the economy of poetry as a performing art. That is the only time I talked with him.
Most of us Canadians knew Michael Ondaatje first as a poet, and then as a novelist after the stunning success of his 1992 Booker Prize winner The English Patient. In a recent interview [http://www.jsonline.com/story/index.aspx?id=620100] he talked about the move from poetry to fiction:
"One of the things about poetry is that you are more suggestive, I think," he said. "You don't say 100 percent. You say 70 percent or something like that, so that the reader also participates in the story. Now, in the poem, the minute you say too much, it dies. So reader and writer are in a simultaneous location making the final poem.
"I want to bring that into fiction. When I turned from poetry to fiction I thought, `Well, I wonder if you can do that, too.'
"So you are being more suggestive, you are being very tight with words, very precise with words as opposed to poetic, which sometimes people think is too romantic. ... And I think the forms of poetry, as the forms of modern art, are more radical perhaps than some of the forms of the novel.
"The strict narrative control of an average novel—which is fine, it is good for thrillers sometimes, but not always to go into new areas and territories. It's like saying that there can only be one narrator in a book. But if we live in a world ... where there's more than one opinion. ..."
The critic Aritha van Herk, Globe and Mail (Toronto), writes, "Divisadero shines with an indisputable and incomparable power . . . [It] is so rich that every description or summary beggars its accomplishment . . . Savouring Ondaatje's subtle expertise in word cuisine is an indelible pleasure, pleasure that, incredibly, deepens with each book penned by this genius (there is no other word for a writer of such grace and depth). His unique gift is that his stories perform an inexorable seduction, impossible to resist . . . His words unfold with the dazzling variety of a courtesan, infinite, unpredictable, always intriguing . . . For all that Divisadero is elegant and erudite, it is also a breathtaking tango of violence, 'raw truth' . . . Although the attentive reader will delight in every sentence, will revel in the vividly original language and narrative approach, Divisadero refuses the aggrandizement of pyrotechnics. By virtue of that reserve, the novel accomplishes an intimacy that is extraordinary, nakedly beautiful."
As the publisher's notes say, "Divisadero takes us from the city of San Francisco to the raucous backrooms of Nevada's casinos and eventually to the landscape of south-central France. It is here, outside a small rural village, that Anna becomes immersed in the life and the world of a writer from an earlier time — Lucien Segura. His compelling story, which has its beginnings at the turn of the century, circles around "the raw truth" of Anna's own life, the one she's left behind but can never truly leave. And as the narrative moves back and forth in time and place, we discover each of the characters managing to find some foothold in a present rough hewn from the past."
The structure of the novel gives the impression of two distinct stories woven together by the character common to both parts, Anna. In the first half of the book we are with Anna as she grows up in her family on the farm in northern California until the family scatters as a result of a violent clash. In the second half the adult Anna is exploring the work of writer Lucien Segura in France. The two halves are connected by Anna's thoughts and by theme and image. Ondaatje's prose is tight, suggestive, rich and powerful. The writing reminds us throughout that "The past is always carried into the present by small things" (77) and that "we live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell." (136)
As Thomas King said in the Massey Lectures in 2003, "The truth about stories is – that's all we are." In reading a text, especially a finely crafted one like Divisadero, one must engage every bit of creativity, of sensitivity, of intellect and feeling that one possesses. The story is in the text, but its full experience is in the mind of the reader. The story provides form and directs responses, and the reader completes the communicative act. Think of the text as a musical score and yourself as a performing musician. The notes are there - are in the score - and you must be able to perform them on your musical instrument. You need to bring technical skill, sensitivity to nuance, and knowledge of the language of poetry to the task; or as Janet Maslin, in her review in The New York Times puts it, "The more you give Divisadero, the more it gives in return…"
If you have read Divisadero you should also try this audio book, for Hope Davis, film and television actor, provides an excellent interpretation of the text. Her delivery is intelligent and moving, her French perfect for the several passage where it is required. I found her reading easy to listen to, powerful and sensitive, and based on a clear respect for the text. She knits the three parts of the story together seamlessly and delivers an interpretation which adds to the lovely tapestry of the Ondaatje prose. She provides subtle and yet necessary vocal cues to keep the listener constantly aware of place and time.
© 2007 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is a retired professor of English and Philosophy who is currently a Research Associate in Philosophy at Malaspina University-College in British Columbia, Canada. He is the author of a book of short stories, Redneck.