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Michael Ondaatje: Divisadero

Divisadero is a street in San Francisco where one of the narrators – Anna – says that she is from. She is not. Divisadero, from the Spanish word for ‘division’, the street that at one time was the dividing line between San Francisco and the fields of the Presidio. Or it might derive from the word divisar, meaning ‘to gaze at something from a distance’. This novel, like many good contemporary novels, is not really a novel but more a series of intersecting stories which, in some cases, drift off inconclusively, for which critics have attacked Ondaatje. They are quite wrong, as it is quite simply story-telling at its best. The characters are united as some of them come across the others and all are loners, only fleetingly establishing relationships, only to move on.

The novel starts with Anna, her sister Claire, who is not her sister, her father and Coop. Claire and Anna are born in California where their silent farmer farms the land. Her mother had died giving birth to her and, as a result, he takes Claire, an orphan baby born at the same time, as recompense for the loss of his wife. Coop is a farm hand whose parents were murdered when he was seven and Anna’s father adopts him, though he is treated more as a farm hand than as a son. He is a few years older than Anna and Claire but they cannot help admiring him. He builds his own cabin and lives there. One day, Anna, a sixteen year old, goes up to his cabin and they start an affair. When her father finds out, he tries to kill Coop and is only prevented from doing so by Anna’s violent intervention. Her father then drives Anna off and she escapes. She will never see any of the other three again.

Their lives take divergent paths. Coop becomes a gambler and learns the tricks of the trade from an expert which enables him to cheat a group of born-agains out of a lot money. He tries to keep low but another group want him to perform the same trick on someone else. It is at this juncture that Claire comes back into his life. Meanwhile, Anna has a life of her own. When we meet up with her, she is living a solitary life in France, now an expert on obscure French writers. She is currently writing the life of the (fictitious) French poet Lucien Segura. She has an affair with Rafael, the son of a gypsy vagabond who befriended Segura. The book ends with a large segment devoted to Segura, a solitary man who had been brought up by his mother. He had got to know Roman and Marie-Neige, who had moved to the neighbouring farm when he was still a child and when Roman was away in prison (for a jealous violent rage), Segura and Marie-Neige have a brief affair. Segura lost an eye as a child so could not serve in World War I but did work in the medical field and his experiences temper his post-war existence. Like the other protagonists of this work, he will prefer the solitary life, interacting only briefly with others.

Apart, obviously, from death – Segura, Marie-Neige – we do not really learn what happens to the main characters. Ondaatje keeps us hanging. If you like closure in your works of fiction, you may well be disappointed. However, Ondaatje is such a fine writer that it does not matter. The characters are superbly well drawn and their stories fascinating. Even the sudden jump from Claire, Anna and Coop to Segura – with no more about the other three – more or less works as, like the other three, he drifts around his life, unsure of himself, unsure of who he is and unsure of what the world is.

Publishing history

First published 2007 by Alfred A. Knopf