Friday, October 19, 2007

Long Division

This appeared in the latest issue of TimeOut Mumbai.

DIVISADERO Michael Ondaatje

At one point in Michael Ondaatje’s lyrical but frustrating new novel, a character visits a nightclub called “the Stendhal”. This is described as “a small city of moods”, comprising various rooms, each of which is devoted to a different activity. Which isn’t a bad way of looking at Dividasero as a whole: in one room is potted biography, in another, incidents of love and violence; in yet another, there is tenderness and isolation. The question is, does all this come together to make a cohesive whole?

The novel tells of the fates of Claire and Anna, brought up in a settlement near Sacramento, and of their hired hand, Cooper. Following an illicit love affair that ends in an act of brutal violence, the three go their separate ways. Claire winds up working for a law firm in San Francisco, Cooper becomes a cardsharp who flirts with dangerous company and Anna obsessively researches the life of the French writer Lucien Segura. Years later, Claire and Cooper cross each other’s paths again, while Anna, in France, drifts into a relationship with the guitar-playing Rafael, who knew Segura when he was a boy. At this point – about two-thirds of the way through the book – Ondaatje segues into an account of Segura’s own life, patched together by Anna: his boyhood, family relationships, writing career and experiences in the Great War.

Readers of Ondaatje’s previous novels have come to expect temporal, spatial and points of view shifts, and so it is here as well. His prose, as ever, is atmospheric and poetic, even though the aphorisms don’t always work. Take this one: “The past is always carried into the present by small things. So a lily is bent by the weight of permanence.” Sounds impressive, but what on earth does it mean?

The novel takes its title from a San Francisco street that, as Ondaatje points out, could either come from the Spanish word for ‘division’ or ‘to gaze at something from a distance’. It’s ironic, then -- however carefully crafted, with its villanelle-like repetition and circling – that Dividasero is too divided and inconclusive to be called successful


Anonymous said...

So essentially he's a one book wonder. The English Patient. Sigh. Though a book like that would always be tough to follow up.

Unknown said...

Try Running in the Family, his 1982 memoir of growing up in Sri Lanka.