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).
Meanwhile, specific words—“hesitate” and “dangerous” and “wound”—sound again and again like motifs in a piece of music. After we’ve spent time in an “abandoned base” in the West, something stirs in us, perhaps, when we come to an “abandoned farm” in France, and the “abandoned land” that Segura finds, and then an “abandoned boat,” the “abandoned town” in which Anna arrives after her flight, even an “abandoned wife.” Few novelists are so precise about the images and clues they scatter through their narratives—wheels and references to Balzac and images of men sinking under water recur here. (One of the only writers I have read who resembles Ondaatje is, in fact, his fellow Torontonian and poet Anne Michaels, who summons in the very title of her only novel, Fugitive Pieces, two central elements of the Ondaatje universe.)
Because, like most original writers, he has such a commanding vision, one knows in advance, to some extent, what kind of characters (in every sense of the word) will appear in an Ondaatje book. The other man’s wife, the attractive thief, the wounded fugitive, the trembling nurse: all these figures reappear in his work. Few writers seem more averse to depicting the 9-to-5 round or the conventional stuff of society; you will no more meet an investment banker in an Ondaatje novel than in the works of W.G. Sebald or Nabokov.
In Divisadero, therefore, we meet gypsies and gamblers and musicians and dropouts of every kind, most of them experienced at keeping their distance, yet anxious to reach toward other drifting strangers whose scars may resemble their own. There is constant domestic detail in the book—the ceremonial preparation of meals, the collection of herbs from the garden, the rites of sensual love, dogs (as in all Ondaatje novels) in their way as eloquent as humans; yet there are no real homes that last, and all his people are on the move, emotional gypsies. And though he is rightly famous for his richly tropical scenes of love, these take place often between people with dirt on their shoes and “lived in, overused” hands.
More than any writer I’ve read, Ondaatje is fascinated by craft and by the special lore and lingo of the various occupations he depicts, the secret tricks of, in this case, the cardsharp, the clockmaker, the peasant farmer. When Coop is learning how to cheat at cards, for example, we read sentences that seem to delight in his new vernacular:
He will place this riffle-stacked slug of cards beneath a crimp, about where the player on his right usually cuts the cards. If the man cuts at the crimp, there will be no need for Coop to hop or shift the deck secretly.
When the action moves to the agricultural region of Gascony, in France, we read how a woman
sprinkled chimney soot over the rows where she had planted cabbage, dragged lime and ammonia through the claylike soil, and used cow dung where it was sandy and horse manure where it was chalk.
Ondaatje immerses himself in the work of his characters as deeply as in their landscapes or their histories.
Part of the special delight of reading one of his books, therefore, comes from the impression we get of a deeply curious traveler opening his worn suitcase and letting all the exotic bric-a-brac he’s collected on his journeys tumble out. We learn in Divisadero how troubadours in medieval France imitated birdcalls so effectively that they may have changed migratory patterns. We read that a laser scope can measure the vibrations in the glass of a window across the street. We encounter the neglected recordings of Thelonious Monk, the Sanskrit fables collected by the scholar Wendy Doniger, the fact that Victor Hugo inserted a fictional street in Paris where Jean Valjean could hide in Les Misérables.
For some readers this may all seem too much a part of Ondaatje’s imagination and too far from the workaday world, where most people are less inclined to chat about Julien Sorel. One of the maverick gamblers that Coop encounters in the West, for example, is known as the Dauphin and passes the hours by talking of Lady Murasaki, the eleventh-century Japanese author of The Tale of Genji; another teaches Coop distraction techniques by telling a story about Tolstoy. After the group has pulled off a $300,000 scam in a Vegas casino, the gambler’s sweetheart who accompanies Coop in the getaway car starts talking about, of all things, a radio interview with William Styron she once heard.
There are moments, in fact, when it’s hard to tell one character from another, so much does Ondaatje draw us into a kind of traveling repertory company. It’s not always easy to distinguish the Deadhead cardsharp from the one who says, “My name is Edward Dorn. Like the poet”; the Berkeley researcher born to privilege in California begins to merge a little with the peasant girl in France who’s only just learned how to read. There are six different romances in the book, and each of them is gorgeous and singular in its effects; but if you were to be presented with a scene from any one of them out of context, it might be hard to say whether it was describing the early-twentieth-century writer whom Anna is researching or the present-day French gypsy whom she has befriended.
And yet, at the same time, it is the very closeness of the characters to one another that is part of what enables Ondaatje to attempt some remarkable narrative leaps here. When Anna, for example, settles in France, she comes across a gypsy (who—this being Ondaatje—sits in a chair in an empty field under the moon and plays the guitar in emulation of his hero Django Reinhardt). She is drawn to him because of his “hesitancy,” his “shyness,” as “though in the past he had been burned by something.” On first reading, perhaps, we just savor the supple details of their courtship. But as we proceed, we realize that the word “hesitant” links the gypsy to the writer Segura and his love, who are always described with the same word; that the “burned” is not random, because fires roar throughout this book; and that the gypsy’s talk of his territorial father takes us back to a horse we met on the very first page, with the distinctive name of “Territorial.” Those figures forgotten by history, Anna says, are “essential as underground rivers” and rivers also run through the book, perhaps to connect the meandering waterways of France with the straight roads of the American West.
Ondaatje’s immersion in so many worlds, and his eagerness to bring them together, begin to explain, I think, the unique flavor of his work. When we read of a gambler said to have won his wife in a bet, it is as if a moment from The Mahabharata has suddenly come into the parched deserts of the New World, with their characters otherwise reminiscent of the works of Bob Dylan or Cormac McCarthy. And Ondaatje’s ability to fashion scenes that are at once exact and suggestive accounts not only for the sensual tingle of the books, but also for their literary pleasures. At one point, in the gambling section of Divisadero, the first Gulf War breaks out in the background, on TV, and Ondaatje takes pains to name the agents of destruction—“the Cobra helicopter, the Warthog, the Spectre, and its twin, the Spooky”—and to catalog the “thermobaric fuel, volatile gasses, and finely powdered explosives” they drop. When you recall that these scenes are playing out on a screen in the back of a sealed and air-conditioned casino, where a group of misfits is taking on a band they call “the Born-Agains”—in a game of Texas Hold ‘Em, no less—you realize that the book is, among many other things, a parable of contemporary America.
In every novel he writes, Ondaatje gives us a clue about how he sees his project by the occupations he chooses to highlight. In Coming Through Slaughter, for example, he focused on a wildly improvising jazzman and an archival photographer; In the Skin of a Lion is about bridge-builders; in The English Patient he was concerned with map-makers, bomb-defusers, archaeologists, and nurses. In Divisadero, the two main characters, Anna and Coop, are a historical researcher and a gambler. And the long sections about gambling tell us something, I think, about the gamble this book attempts by trying to do things with narrative that have seldom been done before (leaving two major stories up in the air, for example, in the hope that they can be imaginatively tied together by a third).
There is always a clear and unhurried spaciousness to Ondaatje’s paragraphs; they proceed with the deliberation and hush of a work of meditation, even while turning their attention to things of the secular world, in this case horses and rivers and fields. Yet Ondaatje seems as impatient with the conventions of storytelling as of society, as if determined to open out the very idea of narrative: at one point he refers in the book to a “tune that seemed to have no scaffolding” and, a little later, to a “song that had all of its doors and windows open.” He wants to settle things, you feel, but without closing them off as a conventional resolution might.
“We thought he was formless,” someone says of the wounded musician in Coming Through Slaughter, written thirty-one years ago, “but I think now he was tormented by order.” And there is much in Divisadero that suggests that Ondaatje has indeed been thinking hard about how to turn a collection of scenes into a fast-moving, enveloping story. At one moment, Claire pointedly links the main characters to a “three-panelled Japanese screen, each one self-sufficient, but revealing different qualities or tones when placed beside the others”; elsewhere, the word “adjacent” comes up again and again and again, as if to remind us that, in bringing two of the main characters together, we are implicitly evoking a third. In the same way, we are told, very early in the book, “Everything was collage, even genetics,” and then, a paragraph later, “Everything was collage.”
To understand what he is after, it makes most sense, I think, to turn to Ondaatje’s last book, published in 2002, though, as a work of nonfiction, it was not accorded all the attention his novels receive. The Conversations consists of a series of discussions with the celebrated film editor Walter Murch, the kind of craftsman—intelligent, highly idiosyncratic, and a little craggy—who could almost be an Ondaatje character (not least because his painter father came from Toronto).
Ondaatje is fascinated by the man’s “precise techniques,” he admits, and by the fact that Murch is interested in Beethoven, astronomy, bees—in seemingly everything (at the time they spoke, the film editor was translating the Italian prose of Curzio Malaparte into English poetry). Beyond that, Murch is a master in his field, having edited the Godfather movies, Apocalypse Now, a new version of Touch of Evil for which he drew on previously ignored notes of Orson Welles, as well as the movie version of Ondaatje’s The English Patient. As they talk, what Ondaatje is really exploring is the art of splicing together a narrative: how to shuffle the order of scenes so as to intensify the tension; how to save a scene in the fifty-third minute by making a small change in the seventh; how, most importantly, to use radical jump cuts to create a natural sense of flow.
The Conversations is, in short, an entirely unusual and intensely detailed investigation into the tricks of storytelling. When the severely burned man known as “the English patient” tastes a plum in the movie, for example, a bell sounds half a mile away to suggest that his past is coming back. “I am always striving for a clear density,” Murch says (much as in Divisadero we read that Bach, another household god in Ondaatje’s work, offers a “spare thicket” of notes). As Ondaatje shares his own interest in “leaping poetry,” the largely Spanish form in which subliminal connections between juxtaposed passages “reveal a surprising path or link between strangers,” you begin to see that while Running in the Family may be his traditional memoir, The Conversations is his typically oblique self-portrait.
The many-layered talks with the film editor that Ondaatje published most recently throw direct light on the way he pieces his stories together in Divisadero. (Twenty years ago, discussing In the Skin of a Lion, Leon Edel brilliantly described Ondaatje’s writing as “verbal cinema.”) Perspective shifts constantly in the book, from first person to third, from past to present, till at one climactic moment at the very end we move in the space of a single paragraph from one character’s perspective to another’s, as in a cinematic dissolve. “The right ending,” as Ondaatje wrote in Coming Through Slaughter, “is an open door you can’t see too far out of.”
In its final section, the novel homes in on the writer whose life Anna was researching, Lucien Segura. He abandons his family to reconstruct himself on the page, reworking his life in his books, even visiting the front of World War I to study diphtheria, which he then catches (a virtuoso paragraph on the history of diphtheria follows). And as we watch the character go back and forth between what he remembers and what he writes, between his experiences and the use he makes of them in art, we are reminded that Ondaatje has always put his faith, more than anything, in the imagination, and the ways we have to step away from the world in order to make it whole again.
“Divisadero” refers to the street in San Francisco where Anna lives, and comes, of course, from the Spanish word for “division.” But it may also derive, Ondaatje tells us, from divisar, which means “to gaze at something from a distance.” We heal our divisions by looking at them from the safety of far-off. On the very first page of this book, after all, we have been told, by Nietzsche, that “we have art so that we shall not be destroyed by the truth,” and that sentence is repeated seven pages from the end. In The English Patient, amid all the destruction of World War II, Ondaatje writes, “There was no order but for the great maps of art.”
This is a creed that not every reader will accept, and there will always be some for whom Ondaatje is too rarefied or exquisite. But for those who hold, as he writes in Divisadero, that “sometimes we enter art to hide within it,” the very beauty of the scenes becomes their own justification. The English Patient gave us a captivating latticework of stories about privacy and dissolving borders, and then threatened to crush them with a sudden reference, at the end, to the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Divisadero ends more quietly by bringing us back to reflections, to disappearances, to the ways in which a river might finally merge with a road. In the process, it extends the liberating and original territory of that earlier triumph so unforgettably that it’s hard, on finishing, not to turn back to the opening page and start all over.
June 28, 2007