“There’s a laser scope . . . that can measure the vibrations in the glass of a window across the street, and then translate them into sounds. From there it’s one stop to hearing the conversation going on in that room,” says a character in Michael Ondaatje’s new novel Divisadero. Decades earlier, a different character had already discovered a similar way of creating the vibrancy of life from small parts; as he lay helpless in a World War I diphtheria tent, he constructed the outside world through “maps of sound”: the coughs of dying men, footsteps in mud, the sound of scalpels being set on rubber sheets.
This idea that life can be analyzed by the smallest details is central to Divisadero. In the first few pages, one narrator paraphrases Lucien Freud: “Everything is biographical. . . . What we make, why it is made, how we draw a dog, who it is we are drawn to, why we cannot forget.” In some ways, this seems counterintuitive. Writing teachers repeatedly tell us to focus on the telling detail, but here everything, unknowingly, contributes. Divisadero offers no conclusions, but it is brimming with details that allow us to discover, and recreate, so much. It gives us a world both unique and familiar, and one that is achingly beautiful.
One of Canada’s leading writers, Ondaatje has for the past three decades written strange, luminous, novels (in addition to several books of poetry and a memoir of his family in Sri Lanka). All combine a sensitive, textured sense of place with a disjointed narrative. His characters are engaging and individualistic yet somehow mythological and distanced from us. His first novel, Coming Through Slaughter, is about a real-life New Orleans jazz musician. It does not so much describe music and insanity as embody them. In the Skin of a Lion and its famous sequel, The English Patient, continue to experiment with form. Anil’s Ghost, the most recent novel is the least successful; with a more conventional narration, it seems flat. Fortunately, Divisadero in some ways leapfrogs Anil to return to the earlier novels. While less structurally inventive than, say Coming Through Slaughter, Divisadero captures us in a stunning net of interwoven language.
Divisadero contains three separate stories. Although each tale is completely engaging on its own, it is through juxtaposition that their true beauty comes out. First, and most significant, is the story of Anna, Claire, and Coop, a natural daughter, adopted daughter, and foster son who grew up together on a farm in Petaluma, California in the 1970s and ’80s but haven’t seen each other in over twenty years. In the meantime, Coop became a gambler, Anna changed her name and became a French literary historian, and Claire still roams the hills of their father’s farm.
The next story starts decades earlier with a family of Roma musicians in France, while the final tale describes the life of French writer and Great War veteran Lucien Segura. Plot-wise, the stories connect: Anna becomes sexually involved with Rafael, the son of the Roma family, while she is living in France researching Lucien Segura. Meanwhile, Rafael and his family once traveled with Segura.
More than through plot, however, the stories are connected by repeated themes. Most of the characters are orphans of some kind; longed-for dead mothers, adopted fathers, and near-incest between almost-siblings reappear. A blue table pops up again and again, while the two Gulf Wars play out on television. Past and present, place and history, individuals; all mix and influence each other.1
Divisadero is “about” many things, but especially about identity and the mysteries of who exactly we are. “How many things could you throw your image against?” Anna asks, recalling the abstract photographs her father had taken of shadows and reflections. If Divisadero were the answer to her question, than the response would be, “everything.” Early on, we are told “There is the hidden presence of others in us, even those we have known briefly. We contain them for the rest of our lives, at every border that we cross.” The details of the past reappear in the present and the details of others reappear in ourselves.
The questions of self-identity loom largest for Anna and Claire who “reflected each other, competed with each other.” The adoptive sisters were born the same week and are near-twins. They are compared to the panels of a Japanese screen, autonomous, but reflecting different tones when placed together. Thus, it is only by defining “Claire” that “Anna” can exist. As Anna acknowledges, “In my story, the person I always begin with is Claire.” Even more than she knows, her self-identity is grounded in her relation to Claire; she is almost-Claire, and also not-Claire.
Throughout their childhoods they snatch onto their differences in a shared attempt to identify themselves from the other. Claire is the horsewoman and the one with the limp; Anna is a reader who “used to leap around like a boy or a dog.” They stare at their photographs, searching for differences, watching how “one became more beautiful, or reclusive, one became more self-conscious, or anarchic” as they grow into their own “version of ourselves.” It is clear that the girls constantly seek out these distinctions only because they have no internal sense of their separate identities.
Suddenly, however, Anna tears herself away from the fabric of sisterhood. She runs away from home and the sisters never see each other again. As an adult, Anna tells us that she is always waiting for a telephone call from Claire or Coop, but we slowly realize that she is the one who could contact her family but chooses not to. Both Claire and Anna live in San Francisco,2 but Anna has changed her name, ensuring her separation.
Yet even as an adult Anna claims she sometimes “borrows Claire’s nature, as well as her careful focus on the world.” To explain this “careful focus,” she describes the kind of intense details that Claire would have remembered: “the strange episode with the fox, the cup of wine and the heel of bread and the deep gold of the cheese on the table at five a.m. in that dark kitchen of our childhood before milking began,” concluding almost unnecessarily “but then, I remember that too.” In truth, Anna has borrowed not so much Claire as the idea of Claire, has set a fixed identity for each of them in the hope of becoming an individual. The details Claire would remember are the ones she remembers. Separated for years, forced to act like herself, she still only knows herself in comparison with her sister.
Just as the stories of Anna, Claire, and Coop are inextricably entwined, so too are the novel’s three narratives. Anna says:
It’s like a villanelle, this inclination of going back to events of our past, the way the villanelle’s form refuses to move forward in linear development, circling instead at those familiar moments of emotion. . . . For we live with those retrievals from childhood that coalesce and echo throughout our lives. . . . We live permanently in the recurrence of our stories, whatever story we tell.
Thus, the stories of Rafael and Aria, Lucien Seguro and his childhood friend Maire-Naige reflect and become part of the sisters’ stories. As the same themes, words, and details reappear, they illuminate different characters in the same way.
Indeed, Ondaatje’s structure focuses the reader’s attention on the convergence between individual identities and a larger structure. The characters wonder endlessly where they fit into the narrative of their lives, asking, in Anna’s words, “Am I the hero of my own life?” Claire clearly doubts her own role; when she meets Coop again as an adult, she had no idea that in his mind “she was the heroine of the meeting.” The narrator continues, “We relive stories and see ourselves only as the watcher or listener, a drummer in the background keeping cadence.” Similarly, Coop, Lucien Segura, and Rafael also find themselves at the center of stories they’d never known existed.
Anna quotes Annie Dillard talking about fetuses that are absorbed into the body of their twins in the womb, remaining forever a fetus locked inside the growing twin. She reflects, “And perhaps this is the story of twinship. I have smuggled myself away from who I was, and what I was. But am I the living twin in the story of our family? Or is it Claire? Who is the stilled one?”
This idea animates Divisadero. Within every story lie the embryos of other stories; we become aware of all the stories untold. The parallels between different stories help demonstrate this. Lucien Seguro sees Rafael’s father as “almost like a mirror” to him, while the briefly narrated story of his observations of his own daughters echoes the relationship between Anna, Claire, and their own silent father. We see one family’s story from the father’s viewpoint and the other from the daughters’, but they could have easily been reversed.
The corollary to the interrelationship of stories is that the ones contained in the novel are not finished. We do not know what “happened” to Claire and Coop, to Anna and Rafael. Their stories end when each pair is on the verge of telling their own version of the past, as if a story ceases to exist the moment the divided ends are joined. This will, no doubt, be frustrating to some readers. Indeed, it is hard to give up such characters—I would have happily read through hundreds of pages more. Yet the sudden endings also feel entirely appropriate; or rather, one feels that there could be no other ending because the characters never end. They continue to echo in each other.
The greatest triumph of Divisdero is that there is so much to discover. I have focused the thread of identity but another reader might as easily focus on music, place, the mechanics of narration, or the creation of art described in Lucien Seguro and Rafael’s stories. Divisdero is beautiful; like one of his characters losing or finding herself in someone else, I read myself in this book.
1 Then there are the connections between other books; Rafael’s father is an unnamed thief, clearly echoing Hana’s thief father In the Skin of the Lion and The English Patient.
2 Anna lives on Divisadero Street; the book’s title seems to be an acknowledgement of Anna’s divided nature without her sister, as well as the sense that in telling any story we create an artificial division between those events and everything that surrounds them.
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