Now that I have emerged blinking into the brave new film-free dawn that heralds my affinity with all things Michael Ondaatje I have been welded to Divisadero like a thing possessed, inseparable if not slightly confused on occasion, but have emerged the other end in one piece and awash with his writing again. I now trust Michael Ondaatje to sort it all out in the end and he did.
I think this book must more than live up to its title at every level,
'I come from Divisadero Street. Divisadero, from the Spanish word for 'division'...or it might derive from the word divisar meaning 'to gaze at something from a distance.'
Aha, I said as I reached that point on page 142, now I see what you're up to Mr Ondaatje. Intentionally I haven't read the reviews but I'll bet they are divided and polarised from brilliant to ghastly. I'm in the brilliant camp me because Michael can't put a foot wrong now. No word out of place, if Michael meant it to be there then that's where it belongs. If Michael wants to twizzle me round his little finger and tie me in knots with his divided story then I'll cope with that too.
Life in all its strangeness held within these pages from lives lived on the basis of mere transactions, the rapid decision to adopt a baby, the bartered bride, the 'layers of compulsive secrecy', the loose connections that echo and reverberate through this book, leitmotifs that surface and re-surface to bridge time and place from Vegas to off-the-beaten-track France and bind the story together. Shards of glass stun and blind and that blue table certainly gets around a bit,
'The past is always carried into the present by small things'
There's that little Ondaatje gem that I sense he buries in every book, the concentrated essence of what he wants to tell me.
And another one that helpfully contained my anxieties,
'Not knowing something essential makes you more involved.'
This is indeed 'Terre Inconnues' traversed time and again as reality, memory and history intertwine seamlessly.
It's a difficult plot to precis beyond the very beginning and an unusual family set-up which originates in Northern California with the farmer whose wife has died in childbirth.(divisadero uno perhaps) He brings home another orphan daughter from hospital , Claire, to raise with his own daughter, Anna, whilst also adopting a neighbour's child Coop, orphaned by a fire.
Put quite so blandly I see it reads like a quick way to enlist child labour but that never feels quite the case, though as a constructed family they do all work very hard. An act with staggering and far-reaching repercussions cracks this fragile network apart (divisadero next, blue table, first shard of glass ) and Michael Ondaatje picks up the threads of the lives and the yearning down the years with the emphasis on Anna in France researching the life of a French poet, Lucien Segura (divisadero many, but only one eye, more shards of glass, blue table)
Heck, I'm going to stop there because I've made it all sound barmy and it most certainly is not, Michael Ondaatje does not do barmy.
What Michael Ondaatje does is to write with a keeness of perception that I am now in tune with, the pulse has been found and I have my finger on it and for me Anil's Ghost was the key.
I have succumbed to the style and can now embrace it. A style that never does the obvious, there's a point in this book when I turned the page and said
'what the...' 'goodness me what's happening here', because I felt as if I had walked into the wrong room completely, had I picked up the wrong book? The pace changes from high octane to snail's just like that and there are moments of dazzling and illuminating skill yet all done with I sense a careful reverence for his art.
Nothing seems pretentious or ill-placed, or perhaps I'm incapable of seeing it now?
There's a fine self-reflexive Michael Ondaatje moment, a writer himself, writing about a writer writing about writing and buried in there the suggestion that a writer can write in the conclusions he wants, that his own life may never quite have achieved. It's moving and clever as you read an alternative plot to the main one, those nesting stories again.
Intertextuality is a bit of a high-risk word to throw in here because in the post-modernist world of litcrit it's been severely touted around and the meaning now probably many stages removed from the original. I did once kneel with some comprehension at the foot of Julia Kristeva but I quickly got up again, so I'll borrow it for the dgr scribbles school to mean something very simple, the referencing by one author of the text of another.
Michael Ondaatje uses plenty. There might be one book I'd read now to spot any secret Divisadero codes and that would be The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas, but Victor Hugo, Balzac, Colette, The Leopard and even Annie Dillard get a mention.
But final words to the esteemed Mr Ondaatje because yet another reassuring little Divisadero line written especially for me and by the final page beautifully fulfilled,
'Oh, this older need for a lullaby not a storm.'