Patterns from the past
Caroline Moore DIVISADERO by Michael Ondaatje Bloomsbury, £17.99, pp. 273, ISBN 9780747589242 £1439 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 Michael Ondaatje's legion of admirers will not expect a novel constructed around a linear narrative, or even cohering in the developing consciousness of a central character. 'Everything is collage,' he tells us in Divisadero, a novel which is perhaps over-full of self-referential pointers. The work, we are led to infer, is like a 'helicoidaf spiralling belfry, or 'like a villanelle ... the way the villanelle's form refuses to move forward in linear development'. It is like a 'triptych', offering parallel panels. 'We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell,' says one character (it hardly matters which).
Narrative in Divisadero splinters, and shards of glass duly become a recurrent motif. The novel starts in 20th-century California, where a farmer works the land with the help of his daughters. One is adopted: Claire is an orphan brought back from hospital at the same time as his own motherless child, Anna. The fourth member of the household, Coop, a boy a few years older than the sisters, is also an orphan: his parents were brutally murdered when he was four by their hired hand. Coop's 'easy minimal effort towards whatever was around him' entrances the girls: 'As sisters we reflected each other, competed with each other, and our shared idol was Coop.'
This is the strong, well-evoked and apparently simple premise for a story, squaring up for a well-flagged tragedy, which will 'set fire to the rest of their lives'. Coop is caught in flagrante with Anna by her father, who smashes Coop's face with a stool and is stabbed by his daughter with a symbolic shard of glass, all in a symbolic storm. After this, the family, and the narrative, disintegrate.
At first, briefly, we stay with the three young protagonists. Coop becomes a gambler, and learns the esoteric skills of cardsharping from an old-time faro player living in the desert. As Ondaatje himself notes, this section verges on a 'parody of gurudisciple teaching', rescued from cliché only by Ondaatje's bravura skill, a sort of literary card-stacking.
Claire goes to San Francisco and works for the Public Defender's Office; Anna resurfaces in southern France as a literary historian researching a local writer, Lucien Segura, who was blinded in one eye by a shard of glass. She also takes a local lover, Rafael.
In the second half of the book, however, the novel spirals away into the past to follow the life of Lucien Segura, though with endless ebbs and flows in delta-like rivulets of subsidiary relationships. Patternings threaten to become confusing or repetitive rather than intriguing: Lucien's relationship, in old age, with a Romany musician who is a thief, his sexy wife and their son (who is Anna's lover Rafael) is interwoven with his youthful relationship with a neighbour called Roman, who steals church ornaments, and his sexy wife.
This half, too, has superb passages, such as the description of Lucien Segura, ill with war-time diphtheria in his 'duncoloured canvas tent,' and fantasising about Roman's wife. 'The past is gateless,' Lucien discovers in his fever; but this belief, which permeates the book, bestows a peculiar and ultimately vitiating sense of pointlessness.
The patterns between past and present are the point of this book, and are artfully set out: splinters of glass, blue tables, towers, flags, dead mothers and other motifs recur in various story-strands; but it is unclear why these should be significant. Someone in the past had a blue table, so, later, did someone else who knew nothing about the other one — so what? The resonances are purely inward.
'The past is carried into the present by small things,' Ondaatje remarks ponderously. `So a lily is bent with the weight of its permanence.' Only in the eye of the human beholder; and the problem with Divisadero is that its core is dehumanised.
Patterns make sense of our lives: as Ondaatje says, 'we live with those retrievals from childhood that coalesce and echo throughout our lives, the way shattered pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope reappear in new forms'. But this coalescing takes place in an individual memory, an individual mind, and is not the course followed by Ondaatje in this novel. A different writer might have approached the fragments of Segura's life by showing how the researching historian, Anna, recognises elements of her own past in it: instead, the patterns are presented for their own sake.
Lucien (whose wife we never meet) has two daughters, who love the same man. Through the bushes, Lucien watches one in the bathhouse being penetrated from behind by her sister's lover. A disconcertingly voyeuristic vignette, because this is almost the first and nearly the last mention of the sisters. They are introduced purely for the parallel with Anna and Claire, which in the novel exists only in the mind of the author. At this point, one becomes all too aware that he has made it up.
This voyeuristic distance from his creations underlies the weaknesses of Divisadero. There are elements of high hokum in the plotfragments; and characterisation is almost non-existent. Anna and Claire are practically indistinguishable — which is deliberate, no doubt, given their interdependence. But their creator is not at all interested in developing their sibling relationship, or in following through the effects of the trauma on their characters; worse, the voices and thoughts of the other characters are inescapably same-ish, turning around the same preoccupations with `gatelessness'.
In themselves, the fragments of the kaleidoscope and their internal patterning give pleasure, as one might expect with a writer of Ondaatje's widely recognised talents. But even these numerous moments of true sharp pleasure are blunted by cloudy portentousness ('What was adjacent to music was music') or unconvincing detail (the patch of his body that smells of basil, next to his heart'.) Divisadero, from its achingly pretentious title to the last narcissistically self-reflexive image (some birds in the almost-dark are flying as close to their reflections as possible') left me cold.
The discount offers on books in this section remain open for three months from date of publication.