Monday, February 13, 2023

Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje

Source of book: Audiobook from the library


I actually wanted to read a different book by Michael Ondaatje, Coming Through Slaughter, but I needed an audiobook, and our library system doesn’t have that one. But it does have Divisidero and a few others. This one looked interesting, so I ordered it. 

I wasn’t all that familiar with Ondaatje, although I suppose one had to have lived under a rock to have missed The English Patient, and I can’t even remember what recommendation made me put Coming Through Slaughter on the list. (My list has gotten somewhat ridiculous in its length, and I didn’t take notes on the source of the recommendation until recently.) As I started looking into him a bit more while listening to this book, I realized that his style is a bit unusual, and his biography a bit complex. 


Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka, and is of “Burgher” descent - a product of the mixing of Dutch colonialists and the indigenous Sinhalese. His parents soon separated, and he lived with relatives, until joining his mother in England at around age 11. He then emigrated to Canada at 19. He finished his higher education there, and decided to remain in Canada. So, in a way, he is Sri Lankan, British, and Canadian - and I would say that at least in this book, all of those things contribute to his unique voice. His upbringing also seems to have contributed a sense of rootlessness and alienation that pervades the stories in this book. 


Divisadero won a Canadian book award, and appears to have gotten some interesting press coverage because of its unusual format and approach to storytelling. 


Let me see if I can explain that without giving away too much of the book. The book is in three parts, which are linked, but tell separate stories. But are they separate? 


The problem is that there are arguably multiple narrators, one of which is also a character, one of which seems to be omniscient, but is that narrator really just the same as the other or not? The stories are unreliable, and seem to be a mixture of past and present and perhaps fiction (within the fictional narrative.) There are specific connections drawn between the different stories, everything from the importance of a blue table in all three narratives, to the traumas that underlie all the stories, to the characters corresponding to characters in the other stories. 


I suspect one could spend weeks just trying to find all the connections in the web. 


Let me give a quick synopsis of the three stories. The one we start with is the modern-day one. Anna, Claire and Coop grow up together. They are essentially part of one family, although they are not biologically related. Anna’s father loses his wife when she dies giving birth to Anna. At the same time, Claire’s mother dies giving birth to her, and, no other relatives being known, he informally adopts Claire. Around the same time, four year old Coop sees his parents murdered, and is discovered hiding in the house. He too is taken in. 


This happy family situation is violently destroyed sixteen years later, when Anna and Coop fall in love and become sexual with each other. They are discovered by her father, who tries to murder Coop, to be stopped when Anna stabs him with broken glass. Anna is taken by her father, headed somewhere never specified, but she slips away at a truck stop and disappears, changing her identity and eventually ending up in France. 


Meanwhile, Coop manages to get Claire’s attention, and she helps him get medical care, after which he leaves and disappears as well. Claire and Anna’s father are all that is left of the family. 


The story then mostly turns to Coop and his career as a professional poker player (and card shark.) We also get a bit of what happened with Claire afterward. 


The second part of the story focuses on Anna - or the person formerly known as Anna. She is researching a fictional French poet and author named Lucien Segura. While staying at his old chateau, she meets and becomes romantically involved with her neighbor Rafael, who knew Segura year ago as a child. We then get the back story of Rafael and his Roma parents. 


The third part follows the story of Segura, his childhood, his eventual affair with Marie-Neige, the young wife of his much older neighbor, and his experience in the war. 


Of the three stories, I thought the modern-day one was the most compelling. But of course, they are all connected. The most frustrating part of the modern story is that it ends on a cliff-hanger, with no real resolution. Adding to that is that since it might be Anna who is telling the story, is what happened to Claire and Coop even true at all? Or just fiction she wrote, much like Segura writes Marie-Neige and her husband into his novels? 


The best part about this book is that Ondaatje is an excellent writer. Even the stuff I really didn’t care much about, like the poker, came alive in his words. The author paints pictures throughout, and the very different settings and time periods seem equally vivid. The part I liked less was that lack of resolution, the feeling that whatever narrative arc we started with ended up disappearing, and nothing truly went anywhere before ending. 


Of course, one could argue that this is the point - the title itself is about division. The stories, rather than coming together at the end, just kept on growing further apart until we lost sight of them in the distance. Which is pretty much how it went for the various characters, who never seemed to make long term human connections. Whether that works for you or not will undoubtedly vary. 


The audiobook edition I listened to was read by Hope Davis, who did a fine job. I am on the fence as to whether I would have followed all the connections better if I had read it in print. Most likely, the best way to see them would be to re-read it. Knowing the entire book first, it would be a bit easier to pick up on the recurring themes and connected webs of meaning. 


Just one final thought: one of the recurring lines in the book centers around the iconic line in David Copperfield, itself a semi-autobiographical novel of the sort that Anna may be writing.


“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”


That is a great line, and, perhaps for all of us, one of the enduring questions of our own lives.


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