Divisadero

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1808

Michael Ondaatje’s fame skyrocketed from cult favorite to international literary celebrity after his 1992 novel The English Patient won the Booker Prize (for best British, Irish, or Commonwealth novel in English) and was subsequently made into a critically and financially successful Academy Award-winning film by director Anthony Minghella. While his...

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Michael Ondaatje’s fame skyrocketed from cult favorite to international literary celebrity after his 1992 novel The English Patient won the Booker Prize (for best British, Irish, or Commonwealth novel in English) and was subsequently made into a critically and financially successful Academy Award-winning film by director Anthony Minghella. While his novel Divisadero is not as experimental as early works such as Coming Through Slaughter (1976), it does somewhat mark a return to Ondaatje’s mature modernist form, taking more experimental risks than Anil’s Ghost (2000). Divisadero tells the story of a rancher’s daughter, his adopted daughter, and the boy he takes in to raise, whose small (and to some of them, idyllic) lives together are shattered by one moment of unreasoning violence. The reader is told by the rancher’s daughter, Anna, the central character in the narrative, that she comes from “Divisadero Street.” “Divisadero,” the reader is told, possibly derives from the Spanish word for “division”; if nothing else, this is a novel about the division of a family.

Anna’s mother died giving birth to her daughter. When Anna’s rancher father found that another woman had died in childbirth, leaving a daughter without a home, he decided to adopt the infant as his daughter Claire. A few years later, a nearby family was killed, except for the small son, Coop, who hid beneath the floorboards of the house. Four years older than the girls, he too was brought to the ranch to be raised. Coop never quite fits in, and for much of their lives, Anna and Claire are fascinated with him almost to the point of obsession.

Divisadero makes use of varying points of view. Some sections are written in the first-person from Anna’s perspective, and others are told in the third person from Coop and Claire’s points of view, while the last section is a third-person rendering of the life of writer Lucien Segura. Just as the point of view shifts, so does the novel’s structure. The novel begins in the shared past of Anna, Claire, and Coop and then moves forward in time eighteen years for Anna and Claire; Coop’s journey is shown in fragments depicting life from both a few years after his departure and then years later. The novel, in fact, is so fragmented that some critics have described the book as a collection of novellas, but in truth the novel is much more tightly woven than a collection could be. Motifs and themes return and develop so that later narratives help readers understand the arc of earlier ones. Anna is the character at the eye of the narrative storm; the stories all revolve around her presenceor her absence.

Anna implies, in her opening narrative, that a romantic relationship between her and Coop is almost fated; however, it is also doomed from the moment it begins. Coop, at twenty, has moved to a cabin separated from the main house by more than a mile; sixteen-year-old Anna visits him there, and before long they are entangled. When Anna’s father discovers them having sex, he brutally attacks Coop. Coop’s life is saved only when Anna stabs her father in the back with a sliver of broken glass. Anna’s father leaves Coop half-dead in the middle of a horrific storm to carry Anna back to the house. Anna runs away that very night with her father in pursuit, and Claire must save Coop’s life. Within the day Coop, too, has fled. Neither he nor Anna ever returns.

The narrative then shifts to the future, where thirty-four-year-old Anna is a scholar and writer researching the life of early twentieth century French poet and popular novelist Lucien Segura. She moves into the very house that Segura grew up in, and there she meets Rafael, the son of a gypsy woman and a professional thief who had befriended Segura. Like Coop, Rafael is aloof and quiet in his love, more ephemeral than possessive. In her affair with Rafael and her research into Segura, Anna seems to be trying to recapture both her lover and her fatherindeed, her entire family.

Coop’s story picks up only a few years after the incident at the ranch. In a chapter titled “The Red and the Black,” the reader finds that Coop has become a professional gambler, a poker player. The title is lifted from a nineteenth century novel by Stendhal about a young man’s initiation into the dangerous and manipulative world about him. Second, the title seems to suggest the alternating colors of the roulette wheel and all that it entails: luck, chance, karma, and fate. As Coop moves into maturity, he seems to be obsessed with luck and fate; he has escaped death twice and seems determined to push his luck as far as he can. With the aid of a small cadre of experienced friends, he determines to dupe a corrupt gambler and his entourage. He succeeds, but his victory will eventually return to haunt him.

Claire is the only one of the three who is still connected to the father, visiting him most weekends. Her life, even more than Anna’s and Coop’s, seems to endure a void in their absence. She works for the public defender’s office in San Francisco, and her life, just as in the case of each of her quasi siblings, has not led her to a family of her own. Just as she helped Coop after his beating by her foster father, she attempts to help the accused that turn to the defender’s office. By luck alone she will eventually locate Coop again; however, not long after they are first reunited, he is savagely beaten for refusing to join another scheme and, again, needs to be nursed by her.

The last 102 pages of the 273-page novel deal with the life of Lucien Segura. The reader learns how, as an elderly man, Lucien met Rafael’s parents and traveled with them to his old home to reclaim the house, eventually giving them a parcel of his land. Then the narrative unravels the days of Lucien’s life: his birth as the result of a brief affair between his mother and a visiting Spaniard; his partial raising by a clockmaker, who died when Lucien was very young; and finally the arrival of a wrathful working man, Roman, and his new bride, Marie-Neige, to a neighboring farmhouse. Only a year older than Lucien, Marie-Neige is unsure how to manage a household. Before long, Lucien’s mother has almost adopted Marie-Neige as a younger sister, or elder daughter, or as a project; even as Lucien’s mother teaches her how to run her house and how to read and write, she also teaches Marie-Neige about the world beyond. It is Marie-Neige who nurses Lucien when he is struck in the face by broken glass and loses one eye.

Lucien eventually leaves home and becomes renowned as a poet, entering into a lackluster marriage that will grant him two daughters. He enters World War I initially as a correspondent, and later as a medical attendant, only to catch and almost die of diphtheria. It is not his wife but instead Marie-Neigewhom Lucien has been half in love with for yearswho shows up to nurse and save him. It is also during the war when Lucien and Marie-Neige finally become lovers, helped by the absence of her husband, now in prison for having killed a man while gripped by a jealous rage. The story of Lucien’s youth and eventual reconciliation with Marie-Neige is juxtaposed with the story of his disappointments in middle age: his lack of passion for his wife, her contempt for him, and his daughter’s infidelity with another daughter’s husband.

Initially the reader may feel sidetracked by Lucien’s story. Although Anna speaks of her interest in the poet, his story seems tangential and inessential to the story being told over the first sixty percent of the novel. However, by the end of the book the reader realizes that the tale of Lucien Segura has been written by Anna herself, and that the seemingly digressive discourse in some way or another is explained by the other meaning of the word divisadero, which, as she tells us, is to “gaze at something from a distance.” She goes on to say, “It is what I do with my work, I suppose. I look into the distance for those I have lost, so that I see them everywhere.” Anna’s statement, tied with her narrative intrusion into Lucien’s story, brings to light the fact that Anna’s rendering of Lucien’s story in many ways reflects the events of her, Claire, and Coop’s lives. Lucien’s narrative section, rather than being told by a third-person omniscient narrator who can peer into Lucien’s consciousness, is told by Anna acting as a third-person narrator. Thoughts and feelings ascribed to Lucien must therefore, in some way, be ascribed to Anna, or at least her idea of Lucien.

The sliver of glass in Lucien’s eye conjures the glass that Anna used to attack her father. Like Anna’s love for Coop, Lucien has a long and abiding love for Marie-Neige before the romance is consummated; in each case, the love is cut short by circumstances. There are many forces that serve to separate the lovers; in Coop and Anna’s case, they have been raised as siblings, and she is young and in some way or another feels that she is betraying Claire, who has similar feelings for Coop, and her father, who would (and obviously does) disapprove. In Lucien’s case, Marie-Neige is married, he is married, and they are separated by years and miles and for most of their lives. Their love act is an epilogue rather than a departure, but the resonances are the same. Similarly, the illicit love affair between one grown daughter and her sister’s husband replicates the vague incestuousness present in Anna and Coop’s romance. The beating that Coop endures stoically at the hands of crooked gamblers mirrors the one he had received from his guardian so many years before.

In its lyrical passages, sweep of years, loose construction, and divergent narratives, the novel takes on a haunting tone that seems to suggest that, as William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” (Requiem for a Nun, 1951). Perhaps Anna, Claire, and Coop will never be free of that one defining violent moment. In Anna’s view of Lucien’s peaceful latter days, and in Claire’s reunion with Coop, and in Coop’s damaged brain beginning to heal, there are perhaps some grains of hope that these three will either embrace their pasts or learn to live with them.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 32

Booklist 104, no. 3 (October 1, 2007): 73.

The Nation 285, no. 22 (December 31, 2007): 34-36.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (June 17, 2007): 13.

The Times Literary Supplement, September 14, 2007, p. 19.

The Washington Post, June 3, 2007, p. BW03.

Weekly Standard 12, no. 39 (June 25, 2007): 40-41.

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