Pacific Rim Review of Books

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Ondaatje's Bifurcated Line

review by Linda Rogers

Divisadero. Michael Ondaatje. McClelland & Stewart, 2007.

In this world of melting ice floes, Michael Ondaatje, the most careful of writers, has risked the very edge of a vanishing waterscape. Divisadero is a novel about separation and the possibility of finding grace at the end of a dangerous voyage. This is a tricky business. As the ice separates, Anna, the narrator has one foot on either side of the divide. Will the book split down the middle or will Anna miraculously reconcile its parts. I think this depends on the reader.

The linear reader will have trouble with the shifts in time and tone, with characters who appear and disappear at the caprice of circumstance. Like the interior novels of Joyce or Woolf, Diviserado needs to be experienced. The narrative line, tenuous at the very least and as full of incredible coincidence as fiction by Thomas Hardy, is actually a meditation on the various aspects of mercy and change, as incongruous bed partners as many of Ondaatje’s unlucky lovers.

Ondaatje is a poet who can’t resist symbolic language. One such moment embodies the beauty and frustration of Anna’s quest. When her “sister” Claire seeks shelter with strangers, she is joined in bed by the family dog. “For a while, it was still, and then, wanting more space, it pressed the claws gently, then more firmly, like tuning forks into her back.” That is an image that jars until the reader accepts that dogs hear in a different frequency, a range that Claire will need to access in order to hear her own destiny.

Desiderata might be the title of the sub-text of this picaresque recitation, as desire is the impetus for movement and change when men and women rent by circumstance seek comfort in one another.

We are never sure of the degrees of separation between children who are raised in the same environment. The novel begins in Petaluma, California, with Anna and Claire, twinned in their nurturing after both lost their mothers at birth and raised by a caring father. They are rent in a moment of violence that involves father, sisters and Coop, an orphaned childhood companion, in an extreme erotic moment. “What is the nature of love?” the writer, transparently asks then sets out to discover the meaning of his question.

More than sisters, Anna and Claire are divided but never separated. Coop, battered by his jealous surrogate father, becomes a gambler, the lingering metaphor. When Coop loses his memory in one of the larger co-incidences of the book, Claire becomes Anna to satisfy her own childhood fantasies and to heal him. No one is pure in their motivations. No one is absolutely corrupt. These are real people whose bottom line is the need to connect physically and spiritually with the elusive truth of themselves.
Abruptly, the Altmanesque novel moves to France where the re-constituted Anna is researching the life of the dead poet Lucien Segura, whose life experiences parallel her own. We must intuit the steps that have brought her to this symbiotic study. As past becomes present, we assume that she is finding herself in him. They are after all, passengers on the same leaky iceberg and redemption comes in the ways they reveal one another.

This is impressionistic writing, with its revelatory moments layered or laid down side by side the way cards are dealt on a table, or photographs are spread out so that life happens frame by frame. Divisadero is about the ways in which we seek family. We pick up the cards and see what we have in our hands.

One of the profound realizations of age and experience is that there is rarely a “One.” Human beings are not Canada Geese, who mate for life. What we seek in one another is kindness and the possibility of fitting solace with need, the phenomenal reality of our existence with the idea of love. We are all islands of ice in the same ocean, and as they say, “There are many fish in the sea.” Ondaatje does not resort to engines of triteness but he does, in his card games, rides on willful horses and philosophic and literary references, take us to the conclusive language that his characters are unable to articulate. They are only human and their job is to connect and survive to the end of their lives or the world, whichever comes first.

Linda Rogers new novel is The Empress Letters from Cormorant Books.