- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 26, 2007


By Michael Ondaatje

Knopf, $25, 288 pages


I can think of no better title for Michael Ondaatje’s new novel than “Divisadero.” Aside from referring to a street in San Francisco, Divisadero, writes Mr. Ondaatje, comes “from the Spanish word for ‘division.’ … Or it might derive from the word divisar, meaning ‘to gaze at something from a distance.’” Both meanings are crucial to this beautifully written, songlike novel, for its principal characters, once inseparable, have their lives riven by an act of terrifying violence and spend their days thereafter divided from their selves and from each other, gazing at their common history — with regret and bitterness — from afar.

The novel opens in rural Sonoma County, Calif., in the 1970s. The half-sisters Anna and Claire (Claire was adopted from birth) live on a farm with their withdrawn father and a hired hand named Coop, a quiet and confident teenager, “a compulsive risk-taker, dangerous even to himself.” Coop’s family was killed when he was very young; that he was hurled into life by this unspeakable act will almost define the course of his future, for he repeatedly finds himself in the midst of violence — he seems almost incapable of avoiding it.

Anna and Claire are intimates, living a quiet life in an isolated, small place, but as they grow into teenagers, the object of their affection will be all too close: “As sisters we reflected each other,” Anna says, “competed with each other, and our shared idol was Coop.” And though Anna and Coop have grown up essentially as siblings, they begin an affair that will have disastrous consequences. When her father catches the two of them together, he unleashes a torrent of rage, nearly killing Coop, while Anna tries to ward her father off by stabbing him with a shard of glass.

This incident, “in retrospect something very small, something that might occur within just a square inch or two of a Brueghel,” will haunt them all, as Coop, Claire and Anna move away from each other and from the world of the farm in Sonoma County. That “moment of violence that deformed [Anna], all of them,” will not diminish with time, and it forces their escape from the world at large. Coop becomes a cardsharp and professional gambler, drifting from Tahoe to Vegas to Santa Maria, Calif. Claire makes more routine, predictable escapes, from her job in San Francisco, as she seeks solace on horseback, riding amid the surrounding hills.

As an adult, Anna drifts the furthest, both geographically and emotionally. As a historian and literary critic she moves to France, where she lives in the old house of a minor writer named Lucien Segura, studying his manuscripts and journals, immersing herself in his past, a metaphor for her own painful search: “It is what I do with my work, I suppose. I look into the distance for those I have lost, so that I see them everywhere.”

Anna begins an affair with a man named Rafael, the son of gypsies who has inhabited the area his whole life. The relationship is, for her, a discovery: “So much is a first with him, her running up and down the corridor naked, the loose grip even now on her wrist, his almost sleepy sexuality where there seems no boundary between passion and curiosity and closeness.”

Here is Anna beginning to move beyond herself, exploring the world of experience, of the senses. But a phrase in this passages suggests the complexity of the situation — “the loose grip … on her wrist,” Rafael’s grip, echoing an earlier sentence: “His callused fingers hold her at the wrist again.”

It is possible to read this gesture as an act of possession, and to understand Anna’s happiness as dependent on her being possessed. We can’t help but remember an earlier scene, when, as a teenage girl, Anna makes love to Coop: “Then his palms releas[ed] the grip that held her against the deck.” To be loved is to be held, owned, controlled. And it is the seminal experience with Coop that colors every relationship in her life thereafter.

Indeed, as Mr. Ondaatje writes, “We live with those retrievals from childhood that coalesce and echo throughout our lives, the way shattered pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope reappear in new forms and are songlike in their refrains and rhymes, making up a single monologue.”

What is the nature of identity? Mr. Ondaatje seems to ask. If we are shaped by our pasts in such a profound way, as is Anna, can we ever truly escape, establish a new and independent identity? When we throw ourselves headlong into the lives of others, are we not actually delineating the arc of our own lives, whether conscious of this act or not?

Much like his characters’ psyches, Mr. Ondaatje’s narrative form is characterized by division: Just when we expect some resolution of the tension building for much of the novel, Mr. Ondaatje takes us on a seemingly elusive detour, marked by frequent shifts in point of view and narrative voice. We are suddenly witness to a web of lives from the past: Those of Lucien Segura; Marie-Neige, the girl who is his neighbor and who grows up almost like his sibling; Roman, her husband. The novel also touches on Rafael’s boyhood, his gypsy upbringing and its consequences.

This French world is beautifully rendered, whether the characters are munching on onions freshly pulled from the ground, reading Dumas aloud or bathing in the waters of a river. And if at first we are frustrated not to inhabit the present — the world of Anna, Coop and Claire — any longer, we soon see the many resonances in the past that come to inform the future. After all, memory, history, geography, absence, loss all figure prominently in both parts of this intimate, imaginative and divided book. As Anna says toward the novel’s end:

“With memory, with the reflection of an echo, a gate opens both ways. We can circle time. A paragraph or an episode from another era will haunt us in the night, as the words of a stranger can. The awareness of a flag fluttering noisily within its colour brings me into a sudden blizzard in [California]. Just as a folded map places you beside another geography. So I find the lives of Coop and my sister and my father everywhere … as they perhaps still concern themselves with my absence, wherever they are. I don’t know. It is the hunger, what we do not have, that holds us together.”

Sudip Bose is senior editor of Preservation magazine.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide