I was well into Divisadero, Michael Ondaatje’s very fine latest work, thinking about how appropriate the title was, remembering that Divisadero (Sp. for “divided”) Street in San Francisco once was a major dividing line in the city but unable to remember what it separated. I’d have to look it up, I thought, to write this blog. Then Ondaatje did it for me and added another dimension as well. The street was the border between the city and the fields of the presidio, between the civilians and the soldiers. There’s also a variation of the Spanish word that means to look out or gaze, and there’s a Divisadero Heights near the street, which I didn’t know about. So in addition to the pain of separation which infuses the book, there’s also a sense of peering into the future and the past. It’s a perfect metaphor for the characters and action in this complex, poetic novel.
The story begins as one of Divisadero become united. In Northern California in the 70’s a cobbled-together family consisting of a father, his daughter, whose mother died in childbirth, a foundling girl whose mother also died in childbirth on the same day as the daughter, and an orphaned boy boy from a nearby farm. The family creates a viable, if rather isolated and odd, existence in the hills outside Petaluma. Then, Anna at 16 and Cooper (Coop) at 20 begin their affair. Dad catches them. There’s graphic and ugly violence, and thus begins the Divisadero that is the true focus of the book.
Years later, we find Claire (the “adopted” daughter) in and around Petaluma/San Francisco, Coop in Vegas as a card sharp, and Anna in France working on a biography of an obscure writer. Except the facts behind those facts are deeper. Anna is living and working in the very house of the writer she’s studying and having an affair with a man who lives nearby and, when he was a boy, knew the writer. Coop is a gambler who’s able to walk away from a card game. Claire works for a public defender, an investigator analogous to, but not at all identical to Anna’s wandering through the past lives of her writer. She’s in some ways a caretaker for both her boss, prone to DUI, and her father, with whom she spends weekends.
All the characters, then, are on the periphery of their personal worlds, none wholly invested in any reality. And there are now two or three novels. The story of Anna in France is not merely an account of her life separate from her family. It becomes the story of her writer, intertwined with the story of her lover, and she becomes at some point one of the writer-narrators telling the other two stories. Ondaatje obviously means the California story to parallel the French one. There is the haunting image of a blue table, for example. And intertwined metaphors of maps and lives and plenteous confusion between reality, illusion, past, and present. In one reading, I could not quite tie the two worlds together to my satisfaction. It was as if I were reading not just about parallel lives on the same planet, but lives in some kind of parallel universe. But that’s on me. Not smart enough. And mostly I didn’t mind. As one reviewer put it, reading Ondaatje’s prose is like listening to music. It’s an experience that often needs no reference point outside itself to convey great satisfaction and meaning.
I’ve read neither of Ondaatje’s two other celebrated works–The English Patient (saw the movie, though, if that counts) nor Anil’s Ghost–but they’ve gone on my list. After reading Junot Diaz, I’ve now hit on Michael Ondaatje. And Obama is President. And it’s turning into a great year.