Michael Ondaatje’s novels are all about putting pieces together. Quite literally, because they proceed through a series of carefully shaped vignettes that the reader has to fit into a pattern; but more deeply, too, because their structure invariably reflects their theme. Nearly always they are about attempting to tie things together, to heal a fracture—between one side of Toronto and another in his first major novel, In the Skin of a Lion; between (and within) four wounded travelers in an abandoned convent in The English Patient; between a visiting forensic anthropologist and two divided brothers amid the debris of Sri Lanka’s ongoing civil war in Anil’s Ghost. How to turn the fragments into a living whole, if only for a moment, is the burden of these elaborate, questing narratives.
The main characters in these books are themselves in pieces, too, scarred fugitives, deeply alone and living at an angle to society. Ondaatje’s first book-length narrative, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, is a set of disparate scenes that follow Billy the Kid across the West; the fragments are linked so lightly and are so various in their tones that the author now lists the book among his nine works of poetry and not his six books of fiction. His next big work, Coming Through Slaughter, is another riffing picaresque about a messed-up jazzman in New Orleans at the turn of the last century (the real cornet-player Buddy Bolden) who, after cutting up his wife’s lover in a jealous rage, ends up cut up himself, and on the run; slowly he loses his mind as well as his art. It’s possible that one source of such concerns lies in Ondaatje’s own background, among the mixed-race Burghers of colonial Sri Lanka. His much-acclaimed memoir, Running in the Family, tells the story of his return to that world in the late 1970s (he left as a child), not quite a foreigner and yet not really a local, and his haunted attempts to sort through the rubble of his family’s self-destructive affairs.
These are poets’ books, in other words, the work of an unusually meticulous writer who creates scenes of uncanny beauty and precision and then pieces them together like jewels in a necklace. Educated in England and resident in Canada since 1962, while traveling widely, Ondaatje is harder to place than many of his fellow exile writers, and there is always a sense in his books that he is trying to create a new kind of mongrel fiction that leaves old categories behind. Few experiences in contemporary fiction are as sensual and absorbing as making one’s way through the slow, shaped pages of an Ondaatje novel. And there is a different, a deeper delight in going through his books a second time—“Only the rereading counts,” he quotes from Nabokov in his new novel—to see the secret stitching that links a reference to Alexandre Dumas in Northern California to a reference to Dumas in southern France, or rhymes the image of one woman’s hair darkening in a shower with another’s. The question that insistently haunts these elliptical and delicate works is how much their very beauty takes us away from the wars and scenes of great pain they describe, and to what extent, in courting art, they leave real life behind.
Divisadero, Ondaatje’s latest novel, is an epic of intimate moments. Ravishing and intricate, it begins on a ranch north of San Francisco in the 1970s, and within pages we are in the half-magical, aromatic world that Ondaatje has made his own. A teenage girl is guiding her horse across the hillside above the morning mist while the local bar down below goes up in flames. Another girl, a little later, is making her way up to a cabin where sometimes she dances to “Begin the Beguine” played on an old wind-up gramophone; sometimes she reads The Leopard before making love, and then hangs Buddhist prayer flags above her cabin as if to sanctify that love. Meanwhile, the cowboy who looks after the girls shows us how to hammer “sharpened sticks of redwood or cedar” to heal a leak in a water tower, how to splint up a broken wrist with willow.
Four people live on the ranch and all are scarred emotionally, and therefore skittish: the patriarch lost his wife while she was giving birth to his only daughter, Anna, now sixteen, and in his grief he adopted another girl, Claire, born the same week, whose mother also died giving birth to her. The cowhand, Coop, was taken in at the age of four, after he had hidden out in a crawl space while his entire family was killed by a hired hand. The story is told by Anna at this point, but we are quickly made to see that there are elements of every character in every other, and identity will always be a shifting and uncertain thing for all of them.
It is the particular distinction of an Ondaatje novel to mix richly atmospheric scenes of tenderness with moments of explosive violence—this is, after all, a writer who devoted his first long book to an outlaw who blew away twenty men by the time he was twenty-one. The wounds, both inner and outer, that arise from these bursts of violence, and the impulse to take care of those wounds, to tend to them with a surgeon’s precision, give his books their drama and their theme. In this case, Anna gets too close to Coop, her father discovers them together during a freakish ice storm, and violence breaks out on every side. Instantly, the three young characters, already fragile, are scattered to different corners of the world, more traumatized than ever.
The narrative that follows picks them up two decades later, all of them running from their pasts and trying to lose themselves in other worlds and new pursuits. It moves constantly, and fluidly, between the story of Coop, gambling his way across the American West, and that of Anna, remaking her life in the Gers region of southwestern France, and trying, from her reading of a forgotten memoir, to piece together the story of a French writer, Lucien Segura, who had also abruptly left his home and his family and who had “a voice with a wound in it” that speaks to her. Every now and then, it returns to Claire, working in a public defender’s office in San Francisco, and at one point Coop and Claire meet up again by chance in Tahoe. But the central and remarkable risk of the novel comes when, in its third part, it abandons the stories of Anna and Coop entirely and travels back, at length, into the life of Segura, at the beginning of the last century, as if to say that the losses and divisions of the present can begin to be healed by looking at another story in the past.
In every one of his books, Ondaatje alights upon some new territory and begins, with patient attentiveness, to excavate its forgotten history and secret treasures; it’s no coincidence that so many of his characters are archaeologists, researchers, archivists. And his settings are nearly always marginal places, far from the city, that few writers have chosen to evoke (part of Divisadero is set in the little Central California town of Santa Maria, forty-five minutes by car from where I write this, in my longtime home in Santa Barbara, and yet unvisited by almost everyone I know). It’s no coincidence, too, that he invokes the California Gold Rush, and the history of looking for hidden riches, on the first page of this new book.
When we read of Anna fleeing the conflagration of her life, hitching a ride in a refrigerated truck through the Central Valley of California, therefore, we learn that the great naturalist John Muir found a sea of flowers in the valley, and that the local Maidu Indian mythology sees the Great Central Plain as having been born from an ocean. We read of gunfighters and thieves and “anarchic outlaw girls” in the area’s past, and see how the Okie laborers we might have met in a Steinbeck account have been followed, in a recurrent Ondaatje concern, by waves of other immigrants, speaking Tagalog, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, and Japanese. At the end of the drive we come to an abandoned town that, decades before, was settled, remarkably, only by blacks.
In just two pages, in short, while describing an escape from a bloody confrontation between Anna’s father and her lover, Ondaatje takes us through wonders of nature and history so unexpected that we feel as if we are stumbling upon an undiscovered world. At the same time, unusually, we read almost nothing of Anna’s feelings at the most dramatic moment of her life. The narrative moves laterally, in other words, and largely through indirection. Most writers would either fill the ride in the truck with dialogue or emotion, or cut to the next location; Ondaatje’s way is to look out the window, to notice bodies of water (which will chime with the ones he later describes in France), to recall the land’s association with renegade pioneers (who remind us of the contemporary cardsharps we have met in an earlier part of the story), and to invoke cities named for “sacrament” and “mercy” (Sacramento and Merced), as if to invoke the qualities his characters are most painfully in need of.
This “science of patterns,” as he calls it in another book, means that his works both demand and teach close attention. When people call Ondaatje a poetic novelist, they are referring in part, of course, to his rare gift for language and observation: a dog joining a woman in bed sinks its claws into her back “like tuning forks,” and two lovers emerging shyly from an afternoon tryst look “like humbled dormice.” There are peacocks in charm trees here, and a thief who marks his place in a book with a sprig of absinthe leaves. A scene of a boy on a runaway horse during an eclipse is as astonishing and hallucinatory as any such passage I can remember reading.
Yet the deeper aspect of his poetic background is that his narratives proceed with the interlaced complexity of a long lyric poem. A section in which Coop is learning how to play cards professionally is entitled “The Red and the Black.” A little later, Claire enters a club in Tahoe, of all places, called the Stendhal, and we realize that the reference to The Red and the Black was not mere wit. Near the end of the book, the French writer Segura thinks back to the nightly seductions of Le Rouge et le noir, and we see a parallel story shadowing this one (see, too, that this is Ondaatje’s first book to take in the sadnesses of old age, and to be as much about fathers and daughters as about lovers).