Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero
The first time I read Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero I was disappointed. A Canadian writer with not one Canadian reference, with a story set in California and France. I wondered about his motives. Is he playing up to Hollywood? And who are these characters? What is the story about? It seems to be all over the place. Self-indulgent? Pretentious? Confusing. Certainly not reader-friendly. Is Ondaatje coasting on his literary laurels? Does the Emperor have no clothes?
You know that old joke about the pile of horse manure in the middle of the room? I'm the type of person who believes that there's a pony in here somewhere. More than that, Ondaatje has given us so much already, I'm willing to take another stab at it, to trust the writer wherever he wants to take us. Even if that wherever happens to be poetic sensibility married to experimental novel structure. Poetic sensibility is good.
Divisadero is told in multiple voices. Part 1 begins in California in the 1970s, when a family--father, Coop, Anna, and Clare--is blown asunder by an act of violence. Anna goes into hiding and never returns home again. She pursues her research subject, an early twentieth century poet, Lucien Segura, from San Francisco's Bancroft Library to the house where he lived in France where she develops a relationship with Raphael, a man who knew Lucien. Clare works for a lawyer in San Francisco and goes home to father and the ranch on weekends. Coop becomes an itinerant gambler and when his misdeeds catch up with him, and a beating destroys his memory, Clare finds him and brings him home. Part 2 describes how the three generations of characters arrive at the house in France. Part 3 tells Lucien's story, his lonely childhood, the injury which blinded one eye, his love for his neighbour Marie-Neige, his marriage and daughters, his service as a field hospital worker during WWI, and his poetry. Divisadero goes backwards in time, from the New World to the Old. It is ultimately sad, full of things we do not want to think about like adultery, cheating, drug abuse, incest, theft, violence, and none of the stories end conclusively.
As I was looking for a photograph of a spiral tower like the one in Lucien's story, a picture revealed itself to me--an excerpt from Ilya Repin's grief-maddened Ivan the Terrible cradling his son's body after fatally striking him in anger. This painting is referenced in the last pages of the novel and the instant I saw it I recognized it as the key. Divisadero is a story about the terrible effects of violence on the victims and about how trauma affects everything which follows. That is why the story begins in California. That is why each of the multiple stories is attached to an example of the larger violence in the world, the Vietman War, the first Gulf War, the invasion of Iraq, World War I. The microcosm and the macrocosm. The inescapable reality of violence in the world and of its traumatic impact upon those who are the victims and the witnesses. Perhaps that even explains why there is no reference to Canada; the instances of universal violence are chosen from examples of US imperialism and European madness.
This Ivan the Terrible painting is the key and Ondaatje has hidden it, this clue to the quest for meaning, in the art reference. I think the experimental structure of Divisadero, which suggests a story written on a deck of cards, dropped and picked up at random, is meant to reflect real life, with its many connections, repetitions even, but not necessarily a linear plot. Or like the image he offers of the coloured shards of glass twisted into a beautiful pattern in a kaleidoscope. Yes. The key is in the art and the proof is in the poetry. Ondaatje even hints that we tend to hide in art, especially perhaps if we want novels to suggest that the world is a beautiful sunny ordered place where everyone gets back together at the end and lives happily ever after. Not in Ondaatje's world. As he said of Lucien, he protected himself with words, building art the way birds build nests, with words like sticks, like twigs collected in the field.