I come from Divisadero Street. Divisadero, from the Spanish word for ‘division’, the street that at one time was the dividing line between San Fransisco and the fields of the Presidio. Or it might derive from the word divisar, meaning ‘to gaze at something from a distance’.
I’m always apprehensive when beginning the second book of an admired author; afraid that the narrative in my hands will not live up to the brilliance of the first that I read. Nevertheless, I had no such apprehensions about Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero, because he is an author I trust. I’m not entirely sure why that is. Perhaps it’s because his writing seems to be tied less by plot, than by the threads of life and feeling and fragments of things.
Ondaatje has a gift for “stripping events to their bare essence”, as some have (correctly) said. The sensuous lyricism of his prose makes poetry accessible to readers, such as myself, who appreciate and respect poetry but simply cannot bring themselves to enjoy it. Because that’s what I think poetry is – the pared down core of human existence. I like that Ondaatje hints at things and provides a picture without spelling out the thousand words behind it – it allows for contemplation; engagement with the prose.
As a boy he had always felt that his musical lessons were a net for holding everything around him – the insects in the field, the weather shifting in the trees – so that he could give it as a collected gift, like a hand cupped with cold water held up to a friend.
I’m sorry that this review isn’t more helpful towards those who would like a brief plot summary, but apart from my dislike for writing those, it really is hard to try and summarize this book in a sentence. I’ll give it a try though: Divisadero is the story of two sisters – Claire and Anna – and a farmhand, Coop, whose lives are tied together and simultaneously torn apart by an act of violence. See, plot summaries aren’t accurate at all. Or, conversely, Ondaatje manages to draw beauty out of the mundane and the seemingly ugly.
In all honesty, this book is not as captivating as Anil’s Ghost. His prose is as satisfying to read as ever, yet I can’t shake the feeling that Divisadero is merely a collection of rambling, unfocused observations with no purpose whatsoever. I loved it in Anil’s Ghost. The disjointedness complemented the tragedy of the Sri Lankan civil war, and Anil’s own chaotic existence. Here; not so much. Ondaatje here is like a photographer who clicks his camera in any direction, not pausing to consider how he will compose a cohesive collection of images.
Another criticism I have is that the last quarter of the novel is irrelevant in relation to the original Anna, Coop and Claire plot. That’s not to say it isn’t good writing. I might even go so far as to say that the last quarter of the novel is far more fascinating to read than the first three, but I’m at a loss as to why Ondaatje stuck it on there.
Despite those two little jarring notes, I had what could only be described as a pleasurable time, reading Divisadero. His writing is so deeply infused with poetry that plot becomes somewhat irrelevant – it’s enough just to soak in the richness of his language. Which of his works will I be reading next? I’m not sure, because I want to avoid The English Patient for as long as I can. Maybe I’ll be brave enough to try a volume of his poetry; The Cinnamon Peeler sounds intriguing.