Sunday 23 December 2007

Shattered lives

by Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje doesn't like to make it easy for his readers. His last novel Anil's Ghost was set in his native Sri Lanka and dealt with the violent civil war between government forces, Tamil seperatists and anti-government agitators but with a plot which changed tack half way through and then back again before its conclusion. He pulls a similar trick in his latest, Divisadero, which takes its name from a street which used to be 'the dividing line between San Francisco and the fields of the Presidio', but it's name might also derive 'from the word divisar, meaning to gaze at something from a distance.'

It begins with two girls, Anna and Claire, raised as sisters whose bond is broken apart when Anna develops a passion for the hired man Coop. When they are discovered by her father he unleashes an act of violence which shatters this family apart. Anna defends her lover by plunging a shard of glass into her father's shoulder and this shard will return as a symbol later. As Anna is spirited away into the stormy night by her father Coop is left for dead. We then pick up the various pieces, following Coop's career as a gambler which will end in another vicious beating and a second saving by Claire. Anna meanwhile becomes a writer and her researching of the life of a mysterious French writer Lucien Segura form the scond part of this novel.

This structure is frustrating because there is an epic power to the writing of the first half, something of the Greek tragedy about the setup of one man being father to three children who have all lost their mothers. After the violent climax of this section we are left with relativley mundane fallout; the business of Coops training as a cardsharp only livening slightly when we get to his big score and the complications of Claire's relationship with him made clear when he mistakes her for Anna when she finds him battered and destroyed a second time. When we are reading Anna's writings of Segura it is difficult at first to see the connections between the stories but that glass shard returns, this time partially blinding Segura, and removed from his eye by Marie-Neige a woman with a violent husband who forms a close bond with the young Segura when she reads to him during his convalescence. Many images and motifs return slightly altered from the earlier story and just as Coop calls Claire by the wrong name, so Segura will be mistaken by Marie-Neige for her absent husband later on.

People often write about Ondaatje's poetical economy with language. Unfortunately there are times, particularly when we are following Coop in Tahoe that this economy manifests itself in short sentences with an almost adolescent repetitive syntax. However there are other moments when the little he writes on the page creates much more in our minds. Here for example is his description of the coupling of Marie-Neige and her powerful husband.

After that she turned and put her arms out along the thick rim of the barrel where in the water was the moon and the ghost of her face. Roman moved aganst her, and in the next while, whatever surprise there was, whatever pain, there was also the frantic moon in front of her shifting and breaking into pieces on the water.

So this is a novel which I think would reward a second reading. As Ondaatje himself writes:

Its like a villanelle, this inclination of going back to events in our past, the way the villanelle's form refuses to move forward in linear development, circling instead at those famliar moments of emotion. Only the rereading counts, Nabakov said...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.

For those who have read his other novels there will either be lots to admire or a worrying continuation of the alienating structure of his recent work. For those who haven't read him before The English Patient is a much more satisfying place to start.


John Self 24 December 2007 at 15:30  

"Alienating," yes I know what you mean, and I certainly agree that Divisadero would repay a rereading. But so much of it has stuck in my head vividly, in an impressionistic and semi-connected way, that I thought it worth the first reading in any event. Have Anil's Ghost coming up for a book group read in the new year and looking forward to that.

Oh and Happy Christmas William, keep up the good work in the new year!

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