The Damaged Souls of Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero

(Photo by Jeff Nolte)

{mosimage}Revered in literary circles for his wily craft and lambent prose, Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje is more widely beloved by readers as a romantic populist who draws ordinary folk out of history’s shadows and shows them, if not exactly a good time, then certainly a wild ride writ large with history, violence, moderately hot sex and very nice scenery. That’s what brought Hollywood to Ondaatje’s door, resulting in the smash hit and inferior adaptation of his best-selling, Booker Prize–winning novel, The English Patient, which convened four war-wounded psyches from far-flung corners of the world in an abandoned Italian villa at the end of World War II and bound them together in a communal life both destructive and healing. For a writer whose artistic model is the bricolage (he still co-edits the mischievously eclectic Toronto-based literary magazine Brick), Ondaatje’s novelistic structure has remained remarkably consistent over the years, and his new novel is no exception.

Divisadero, named for the San Francisco street and, one gathers, the bedeviled boundary between life and art, stretches a chorus of loosely interconnected voices across a canvas that reaches from California to Nevada to rural France before and after the Great War. Over time Ondaatje’s locales have grown so picturesque, or in some cases picturesquely sleazy, that one can’t help casting the movie as each new damaged soul is introduced in the novel. And for all the author’s attraction to what one of his protagonists calls “strangers to history,” the three de facto California siblings in Divisadero have cinematically glamorous or exotic occupations.

Anna, whose voice carries the first part of the novel and links it to the second, is a Bay Area archivist “of every past but her own.” Her adoptive sister Claire digs up evidence for a San Francisco public defender, while Coop, a brooder straight out of Emily Brontë, who grew up with Anna and Claire, is an itinerant Southern California cardsharp besotted with a heroin-addicted nightclub singer. All three are destroyed loners in their early 30s who were separated at childhood’s end and marked for life by a bloody act of vengeance none of them can get over, and now live in close proximity without knowing it. “It is the hunger, what we do not have, that holds us together,” one of them laments.

{mosimage}That hunger infuses the novel with a woozy romanticism, along with a meditation on that other love of Ondaatje’s life ­— art, which, for better and worse, holds out the promise (or the threat) of escape from the terror of living. The source is Nietzsche, but the idea, which repeats as a motif throughout the novel, seems a weak and overly familiar device for explaining how we hide from our hurts and losses. Page for page, Divisadero is an exhilarating read. Like all poets (Ondaatje’s lovely poem “The Cinnamon Peeler” is featured in the early moments of fellow Canadian Sarah Polley’s new movie Away From Her), Ondaatje is a compulsive noticer of nature and the telling human gesture. The rise and fall of every well-turned sentence could be set to music, and his writing has a vivid physicality, whether he’s describing the repair of a belfry on an ancient church, a skateboarder gracefully lifting a woman onboard as he glides past her, or symptoms of the diphtheria that knocked off almost as many victims as did the battlefields of the Great War.

But there’s something thin and insubstantial, indeed rather forced, about the connecting thread of public war and private conflict that brings Anna to a leafy village in France, where she takes as her lover a local musician (more glam jobs) who knew the subject of her research, a forgotten World War I writer named Lucien Segura. Moving back in time, the novel’s second half devotes itself to Segura’s wartime experience, and the role that Marie-Neige, an illiterate farm girl, and her family play in shaping his literary voice. It’s absorbing enough, but like all the characters in this rather vague book, neither the writer nor his muse ever comes alive on the page, and Divisadero doesn’t cohere either as a story or as a novel of ideas. “Meander if you want to get to town,” Ondaatje wrote in a literary aside in his 1987 masterpiece, In the Skin of a Lion, about workers who built Toronto’s Bloor Street viaduct in the 1920s. Divisadero meanders beautifully, but never fully arrives.

DIVISADERO | By MICHAEL ONDAATJE | Knopf | 288 pages | $25 hardcover


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