Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero is an emotionally intimate story full of prose so sumptuous that one must ponder the question of how writing can be both frugal and expansive at the same time. The story begins in the 1970s, on the bucolic California farm inhabited by a cobbled-together, family-like unit of Anna, Claire and Coop, and their father-cum step-father. For Anna’s mother died in childbirth, and so his father takes home both her and the unclaimed Claire – feeling that the hospital ‘owed him’ after the death of his wife – to be raised as sisters. Coop, an orphan of a neighbouring family murdered on their farm, is also brought up by the father. The children grow up together, yet it is not a real family – the father takes an annual photo of the family to mark the passage of time, yet Coop is never in it. It is the first hint of the stark and violent alienation that follows when Coop and Anna become lovers when Anna is sixteen. The father finds them together, naked, and beats Coop to within an inch of his life, and is perhaps only then stopped when Anna stabs him with a shard of broken glass in his shoulder. It is this naked violent event that splits this faux-family apart, sending the three children whirling off in different directions, with Anna leaving the farm that night, and Cooper saved by Claire in the blizzard that marks the event, after which he too departs. Names are changed. Lives are indelibly marked. As Anna later narrates:
The discovery of us in each other’s arms, under that green sky, a father attempting to murder a boy, a daughter trying to attack a father, is in retrospect something very small, something that might occur within just a square inch or two of a Brueghel. But it set fire to the rest of my life.
Coop soon becomes caught up in the netherworld of gambling in Tahoe and Vegas, and becomes a card ‘mechanic’, able to deal hands to himself and others at will and above suspicion. We soon follow his path in an elaborate sting; it is a section of the book in which the prose is particularly alluring. And it is here where Ondaatje pulls off quite a conjuring trick, for we see Claire, on a work trip to Tahoe from San Francisco, stumble upon Coop as she comes off a pill she took the night before. In this hazy state, she wonders whether it really is him, or whether her mind is conjuring up a ghost from her troubled past. But it is him, living off the gains of his sting, but pursued now by his fame and caught by a nefarious group who want his services as a mechanic and will use any means necessary to persuade him, even using a drug-addicted singer to prise open his emotional layers. He falls for this irresistible girl, not knowing her connections, and again suffers the fate of an ill-conceived desire, for he refuses to be a part of their operation. On his refusal they beat him so fiercely that he suffers from amnesia and when Claire intervenes, he mistakes her for Anna – just one example of many in which one character mistakes the identity of another throughout the novel – and they return to the farm to repair relations with Claire’s father and recreate Cooper’s mind.
We find Anna in rural France, years later, writing a biography on writer and poet Lucien Segura, and living in his last home. So tortured is Anna’s memory, so splintered has her life become, that she feels herself to be an orphan:
Those who have an orphan’s sense of history love history. And my voice has become that of an orphan.
She then ponders the meaning of her street’s name back in San Francisco – Divisadero – “from the Spanish word for ‘division’ … Or it might derive from the word divisar, meaning ‘to gaze at something from a distance.’ … It is what I do with my work, I suppose. I look into the distance for those I have lost, so that I see them everywhere.” And this is how the second and third portions of the book reveal themselves; surrounding the life of Segura, we see the lives of those in the distant past, informing and reflecting the lives of Anna, Claire and Coop. We see the recurring themes of illicit love, sibling rivalry, rickety identities and splintered lives. We follow Segura’s childhood, the loss of eyesight in one of his eyes in another violent episode that Ondaatje seems drawn to – this time in the form of a rabid dog who shatters a glass window, whose shards penetrate into the young boy’s eye. He is treated by his mother, and his neighbour Roman and his wife Marie-Neige, who is of a similar age to himself. Before this accident, Segura had read Dumas to her, and now she learns to read so that she may read to him in his convalescence. It is a shared world of Musketeers, The Black Tulip. Later, we find Segura the writer, in a failed marriage, and obsessed with Marie-Neige – it is she on whom Segura bases the heroine of his pulp-thrillers. It is Marie-Neige who haunts his life, who saves him in the depths of the fever of diphtheria on the World War One battlefields, who he returns to on a furlough – and possibly infects – as they consummate their love, tragically, exquisitely. He then returns to her after the war, where he finds her on her death-bed, in the haze of fever, in which she mistakes Segura for her husband Roman. Again, we see Ondaatje probe the meaning of identity – its fragility and recurrence. The depiction of this illicit love is vivid and haunting, and is recollective of Ondaatje’s other great doomed love – that of Almásy and Katherine in The English Patient.
There are many literary references throughout Divisadero, hardly surprising considering Lucien Segura’s occupation, and that a notable portion of the later part of the story deals with his life. There is the shared love of Dumas that exists between Segura and Marie-Neige. There is the Balzac of the battlefield. There are the poets of Segura’s life – including a son-in-law who carries on an affair with Segura’s other daughter in yet another illicit love. There is Anna’s pondering of the street name in Paris in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables in which Jean Valjean hides from his pursuers. And the quote of Anna’s noted earlier that highlights the small matter that may be found in a Brueghel reminds me of W.H. Auden’s famous Musee des Beaux Arts:
In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Divisadero cracks Brueghel’s mystery, for it manages to be both the amazing and leave us in no doubt that we are witness to it.
Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje