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[408] Divisadero – Michael Ondaajte

” 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 Petaluma . . . 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. ” (Part III, 268)

Divisadero begins in Anna’s childhood, as she grows up on a farm in northern California with her father, his sister Claire, and adopted farmhand Coop. Anna is the main narrator who assumes the voice of a biographer: detached and disinterested. Although she reveals both Claire and Coop are orphans whom her father have adopted, Anna herself, in a figurative sense, is the ultimate orphan since after she is scarred by her father’s savage reaction to her relationship with Coop, she has lived a stranger’s life. She slips away from the farm, reinvents a new life, and changes her name. There are layers of compulsive secrecy in her and she never talks about her family.

Everything is collage, even genetics. 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. (Part I, 16)

Ondaajte indeed create a book of collage—snippets of life of Anna, Claire, and Coop after they have grown up. Claire becomes assistant to a public defender lawyer. She reunites with Coop, who is a card player and mistakes her as Anna. Anna comes to France at age 34 to research the life and work of Lucien Segura, a French writer of an earlier who seems only tangentially connected to the main story. But Divisadero is really a series of narratives, in three parts, that calls itself, perhaps for convenience’s sake, a novel. What appears to be three tales loosely braided together actually wanders away from the main story with Anna, Claire and Coop (the first part of the book on Anna, Claire and Coop actually amounts to over half the book) and becomes irrevocably fixated on the French writer, who turns out to have a loose connection to Raphael, whom Anna meets in France. After I finished the book, I understand the purpose and significance of Lucien Segura as a parallel, mirroring character to the father of the three, but the digression seems too indulgent.

For 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. We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell. (Part I, 136)

Ondaatje deftly blurs the form and delivers (as his words in the quote suggest) one monologue full of coincidence, recurrence, echoes of the past, and reflections across time and place. The book is almost too contrived in getting the message about how we can never shun our past no matter how hard we try. There is always a cue or power of association that brings back what we try to forget or bury. The prose is lyrical and exudes an elegiac quietude, but I can’t help feeling the perfecting of form at the expense of an abandoned story is too much of a sacrifice.

273 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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7 Responses

  1. I recently read a book by Gary Disher where the story of the characters was told in snippets. The writing was lovely and had such potential, but I didn’t feel like I was given the opportunity to really be drawn into the story because of structure. That’s always a little disappointing, because in the end, although I can admire great writing and original technique, I am really there for a good story

  2. I’ve tried a few times, but just can’t seem to finish a book by Michael Ondaajte… sigh…

  3. I know I’ve said it before, that timing is everything with me and a book, but in this case, with Michael Ondaatje’s work, it’s not just nearly everything, but absolutely everything. I have to be in a v-e-r-y particular reading state to sink into his work; I haven’t read this one, but I do have it at hand, though I’m aiming for The Cat’s Table, his most recent, first.

  4. […] Divisadero Michael Ondaajte. Ondaatje deftly blurs the form and delivers (as his words in the quote suggest) one monologue full of coincidence, recurrence, echoes of the past, and reflections across time and place. The prose is lyrical and exudes an elegiac quietude, but I can’t help feeling the perfecting of form at the expense of an abandoned story is too much of a sacrifice. […]

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