Somewhere between 1992’s The English Patient and the new Divisadero, Michael Ondaatje’s 1970 book, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, switched columns on the “also by” page from fiction to poetry. Why the belated change? It’s a small revision, true, but an interesting one, and in some ways a succinct, real-life example of Ondaatje’s major literary preoccupations, namely, the power of memory to complete past experience and the way time’s echoes occasionally shake something unexpected loose.
Ondaatje’s early books are feral, unclassifiable things—imagistic, fragmentary, composed under the druggy influence of New Wave cinema, Romantic poetry, and dada collage. Full of jump cuts and odd juxtapositions, the text floats in aureoles of white space, in danger at all times of tearing apart at the seams. Billy the Kid is cobbled together from lyric vignettes about killing people in cold blood, studded with incidental photographs and archival errata; Coming Through Slaughter (1976), the story of Buddy Bolden, an unremembered inventor of jazz who went mad in New Orleans, mimics the protagonist’s schizophrenia.
By the time Ondaatje achieved fame with The English Patient, there was no question he was writing novels, and much of the jaggedness in his early practice had worn smooth. His narrative structures remained odd, but his storytelling was more conventional, and his sentences had attained a richer, almost ambrosial flavor. The voice the world embraced was less gunfighter than purring cat, luxuriant, even complacent at times, but still with the power to scratch and tear with ferocity when so moved.
Divisadero finds Ondaatje in familiar form, which is to say eloquent, finely tuned form. It’s undoubtedly a novel, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to describe. How to capture its strange outline? A colorfully shingled birdhouse (the stories overlap and the book is filled with birdsong)? A daisy chain? A diptych of triptychs? Suffice it to say, the tale wends a crooked path, which is part of its great magic and beauty.
The novel begins in Northern California in the early ’70s, on a farm in Petaluma. The main players are adoptive sisters Anna and Claire, a slightly older orphan boy named Coop, and Anna’s biological father, who’s raising the whole group by himself in the wake of his wife’s death. Anna and Claire grow up preternaturally close and mutually fascinated by their boarder, Coop, who is in turn fascinated by the region’s history of gold prospecting. In his view, the surrounding landscape is filled with hidden treasure, both metallic and narrative. “At each filament-like dot on the county maps, something had happened. On this riverbank two brothers killed each other arguing about which direction to travel. At this clearing a woman was traded for a site. It was as if there were a novella by Balzac round every bend.”
With adolescence, however, volatile passions arise in the household, and not just, or not simply, sexual ones. Anna enters into a torrid affair with Coop (replete with a warm rainstorm that soaks their clothing before consummation), and although the romance is an avenue of sensual pleasure, it is also a brute method, for Anna, of separation from her former self, what was once called a loss of innocence. The two youths enjoy an idyll exploring each other with abandon in Coop’s hillside aerie, until the day Anna’s father discovers them in flagrante delicto. Violence ensues, and in its wake the improvised family is sundered, its members sent wandering on paths that will cross again only in the distant future. It is perhaps an extravagant outcome—they were only kids fooling around, after all. But the way people behave in Ondaatje novels, the violent finality of their actions, is not meant to be realistic; it’s allegorical, and the poetic, fantastic truth of their lives is most always convincing.
After the crack-up, some of the book’s most propulsive sections follow Coop into later life as he remakes himself into a professional gambler, falling in with a gang of likable ne’er-do-wells in the Sierras. Like bomb defusion in The English Patient or forensic anthropology in Anil’s Ghost (2000), gambling in Divisadero takes on a deeper metaphoric value, and Ondaatje lavishes attention on the mechanics and lifestyle of poker. (Equally, he lavishes attention on the geographic names from the region north of the Bay Area. Never has the armpit of Sacramento sounded so lovely.)
The second part of the novel takes place, almost unrelatedly and yet unapologetically, in France, where an older Anna, now an academic, has repaired to research a writer named Lucien Segura. She rents the author’s former house near Dému and takes his onetime neighbor Rafael, a gypsy who carries herbs in his pockets, as a lover. Anna’s story makes for an odd passage into the France section, though, taking the reader a distance and then more or less disappearing. The remainder of the book moves supplely from one character to another, dwelling on Segura as a child; his hardscrabble neighbor, a young bride named Marie- Neige; and her illiterate husband, Roman. Along the way come many gorgeous passages, many dreamlike sequences, and much riding of horses. An entire marriage is gracefully accounted for at the end of a paragraph: “There would be years of compatibility, and then bitterness, and who knew when that line was traversed, on what night, at what hour. Over what betrayal. They slipped over this as over a faint rise in the road, like a small vessel crossing the equator unaware, so that in fact their whole universe was now upside down.” The Spanish word divisadero, it turns out, means both “to divide something” and “to gaze into the distance,” and although the novel’s halves are strangely fitted, they feel bound by an organic, empathetic vision.
Comparisons of Ondaatje to Faulkner and García Márquez are apt. His sense of time, like theirs, is one of curling, recurring flow, the past layered on the past framed by the past, and his characters often find themselves caught in a dire kind of waiting for something long buried to explode. The quartet in The English Patient waits out the end of the war in a crumbling villa. In Coming Through Slaughter, Buddy retires to a lakeside cabin to practice coronet and regroup. Here, Anna waits in an abandoned chateau. Lucien waits. Claire waits. It is a spirit of revision that presides over these lives, and of wonder over how a different word might change the light on a given memory or landscape. “It’s like a villanelle,” says Anna at one point—and she could be speaking for almost anyone in the book—“this inclination of going back to events in 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, the way shattered pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope reappear in new forms.”
The weight of past events accounts for the occasional statuary quality of Ondaatje’s people—it’s sometimes as if they’re carved from marble, their gestures so freighted with import—but also for their restlessness and smoldering drives. Assuming that Ondaatje’s anything like his invented characters—endlessly polishing the shards of memory, forever making sense of the thieving acts of self-creation—his own classification of Billy the Kid probably changes between prose and poetry about eight times a day. The archival Billy becomes the real Billy becomes the legendary Billy, and the scaffoldings of fact and fiction collapse, most pleasingly, in the imagination.
The waiting is definitely good for one thing, though, and that’s giving Ondaatje’s characters plenty of time to romance one another. Ondaatje is a very sexy writer and understands well the ins and outs of the courtly-love relationship, i.e., the only good love object is the love object that belongs to someone else—a neighbor’s wife, preferably, or an adoptive sibling. In Divisadero, the French novels that Lucien and Marie- Neige devour as teenagers provide a sentimental education that is clearly also Ondaatje’s own, full of lessons on the geometries of triangulation and the chemistries of unrequited yearning. The romantic moods he paints can be languid—lovers holding hands in a creek bed—or angry, but it is almost always through the small intimacies of sex that some new kind of understanding develops. Anna uses both Coop and Raphael to advance herself spiritually; Coop finds a junkie chanteuse who becomes his own addiction; Lucien, after much pining, turns to Marie-Neige, but only after he’s married someone else and the stakes have properly risen. Through sex, the personal fits into the historical, and the past is transformed. The horror of war, which is the omnipresent backdrop in Ondaatje’s universe, is endured.
Ondaatje has always been a real craftsman, spending his one true commodity, time, with the utmost patience and care. When Lucien speaks at one point on the topic, it’s hard not to hear the author’s author whispering in his ear: “I love the performance of a craft,” he says, “whether it is modest or mean-spirited, yet I walk away when discussions of it begin. . . . I am interested only in the care taken, and those secret rehearsals behind it. Even if I do not understand fully what is taking place.”
Jon Raymond is the author of the novel The Half-Life (Bloomsbury, 2004) and “Old Joy” (Artspace, 2004), a story published as a book that was turned into a motion picture last year.