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Book Review: Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje

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Reviewing a novel often reveals things that were encountered only subliminally — if at all — during the reading. It’s a process that often clarifies and contextualises. So it has been with Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje. Reviewing this book is, in fact, a recursion, a reapplication of the book’s very idea.

On the surface, Divisadero‘s three sections link events in 1970’s California with others in France in the early part of the twentieth century. Essentially there are two families who aren’t really families except by association, and some of that random.

Anna, Claire, and Coop are on their farm north of San Francisco. Passion and violence tears them apart. We follow Coop into a life of gambling and another beating followed by hiding. Claire reappears after estrangement to protect him by driving him around randomly, visiting places they have never visited before.

After the family trauma, Anna eventually resurfaces in France, having availed herself of that utterly separating process, an education. She is in a manor once associated with Lucien, an almost forgotten writer. She begins to research Lucien’s own family history as a means of understanding his work, and we experience this through Anna’s eyes.

The writer’s family history is chequered and full of twists and turns, mistakes, misunderstandings, occasional violence, and crimes. Perhaps it is not so different from the disparate events that have involved those who shared Anna’s own background. The story seems to become the sum of accident crossing intention, with neither achieved. Crucially, when, through loss, Lucien writes, his family history becomes just that – history, a record, permanent in its re-creation.

Removed again in time, Anna’s account can be even more definite, even definitive. Indeed she can appear to ascribe motive to events in Lucien’s family history while remaining unable to extract sense of place from her own more recent past.

Perhaps this is the ‘divisadero’ of the title. The word, I believe, derives from the Spanish word ‘divisar’, to see from afar. Hence the writer is a seer, but only into the past, and only from the safety of distance. It may have something to do with division via ‘divisas’, shares, but the word does not obviously relate to ‘dividir’, to divide. The divisadero is thus the writer, the detached, distant observer who can be definitive about events by virtue of being removed from them, apart from them, not involved.

Hence we write about things from the safety of distance to rationalise and make sense of a reality, which, at the time, apparently demands we wander randomly through its landscape. All too often it is an act of violence or a loss that provides the watershed that parts ways.

Though the experience of reading Michael Ondaatje’s poetic prose is thoroughly delightful throughout, Divisadero is, in the end, only partially successful. It appears to lack coherence, and a bigger picture only emerges when one tries to fill in the gaps. Perhaps that’s the point.

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