03 March, 2009

'Divisadero' - Michael Ondaatje

Divisadero is a Spanish word, and in Ondaatje's 2007 novel it has a brief presence as the name of a street a character lives on for a time. Its meaning - either to divide or to make something out (from a distance) - encapsulates the whole structure and modulation of the book. The narrative is fractured, keeping the reader at arm's distance from the inner sanctum of the characters. It shifts point of view from chapter to chapter, dipping back into the past, changing the narrative voice from first person to third person, and changing tense from past to present. It also follows two distinct paths: a story of three characters in a modern, rural American community, and the background of an early-twentieth-century French poet and author, Lucien Segura, whose work is being translated by one of the modern characters, Anna.

That link between the two time periods is played out only briefly, however. Throughout the book, pairs of characters who significantly affect each other often spend only snatches of time together. In the modern thread, Anna and Claire are false sisters (born in the same week, one is adopted by the other's father) and often confused with one another, not in a 'look-alike' fashion, but instead in terms of mistaken identity. They embody the notion a single spirit divided at birth and shared between two people. Due to the tumultuous events of their past, however, they spend most of their lives apart. Segura, the writer, is ultimately able to admit and express his greatest love only when that woman is, in fact, not there.

Ondaatje's take on the distant past, as an informant or precedent to our current predilections, as well as the power of events in one's own life, is McEwanesque in its take on cause and effect. Ondaatje is perhaps more open about that theme than McEwan: he stresses that we need '...to accept the flawed barrier between cause and effect, how to see that the present continually altered the past, just as the past was a strange inheritance that fell upside down into one's life like an image through a camera obscura.'

With gentle beauty Ondaatje expresses how atuned we can become to the world: 'It was when he felt...most clearly that there was no distinction between himself and what was beyond him - a tree's sigh or his mother's song, could, it seemed, have been generated by his body. Just as whatever gesture he made was an act performed by the world around him.' Hence, while superficially the two story threads have little connection, we know that Anna is channeling this entire, unknown past belonging to Segura as she sits in the places where he thought, felt, watched and wrote.

Divisadero is reminiscent too of A.S. Byatt's Possession, as both books not only present parallel stories in different times, but also offer them equal space, development and importance in the narrative, rather than one buoying or merely supplementing the other. As Divisadero progresses, the time-shifting intensifies, moving forward and back several years within the one segment, sometimes within the one recollection of a character. Again, Ondaatje is aware of the effect he is creating, using a comparison of photos of characters from each timescape to simultaneously remind us of their link, but also to separate them: 'We are much closer to the subject in this [later] picture. Photography has moved in from the middle distance as the century progressed, eliminating vistas, the great forests, the ranging hills.'

To end, Ondaatje presents us with an image of birds over a lake 'flying as close to their reflections as possible'. The whole novel has presented us with these dualities: of the two timescapes, of two cultures, and within each pairing of characters. Anna can only understand what she is reading through the prism of her experience; hence, a current perspective informs the past. We can only re-live our memories and others' from the present: the notion of cause and effect moves both backwards and forwards in what we only imagine to be a linear progression of time.

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