Unlike my mother, I didn’t love The English Patient. I also didn’t read the book; I saw the movie, which is unlike me. Because I found the film tedious and sentimental I never returned to the novel. For these reasons Divisdero was my first introduction to Michael Ondaatje. As a work of prose, the novel is incredibly beautiful. The stories contained within it are much less straightforward, cavernous and tinged by the tragic.
The book begins with a family. There is a father with two daughters of the same age and an older son. Upon closer inspection, however, the family reveals itself to be patch-worked together. Only one daughter, Anna, is connected to the father by blood. Claire was adopted when he lost his wife in childbirth and she lost her mother. Cooper found his way into this family after his own was brutally murdered.
Ondaatje’s skill lies in his attention to details and the California countryside on which the three makeshift siblings thrive is rife with beauty. The reader experiences the depth of a mesmerizing tranquility emblematic of childhood and retrospection. Contentment unites the family for years, Coop teaching the girls to drive and to get rid of farmland pests.
The pastoral, contented isolation is shattered when the family’s patchwork qualities become visible and the fabric disintegrates. Sex and ardency replace familial love and the discovery of this altered dynamic irrevocably divides the family.
The novel continues to track the lives of the improvised siblings. Ondaatje plunges the reader into the underground realm of gambling at Cooper’s side. The orphaned man acquires loyal if dodgy friends, as well as expertise that can only serve him in the world he has chosen. Ondaatje constructs a convincing backdrop for Cooper’s exploits, convincing, at least, to someone who plays poker with potato chips or some other form of sustenance.
Alongside Anna, we travel to France where she has gone to study the life of writer and poet Lucien Segura. Inhabiting the house he dies in, she meets Rafael, a Frenchman with his own complicated past. Ondaatje has a particular gift for illuminating the sensuality that develops between a couple, drawing forth exchanges that reveal and deepen their characters, emphasizing the splendor and the physicality. In illustrating many of his character’s lives he calls into focus impractical details. The superfluity of the moments he mentions somehow manages to sink the reader deeper into the scenery. Once immersed in the bucolic serenity of France or the grubby danger of Tahoe, it is difficult to extricate oneself from the scene and determine the unnecessary elements.
Both the voice and the setting of this novel oscillate with a slightly disconcerting frequency. It might take a moment to get one’s bearings. This bothered me less than the varying changes in perspective. Sometimes Anna is narrating, and then suddenly she is being observed in the third person. Or there is a jump to Lucien’s childhood in his voice with little or no warning. At a certain point these switches make it difficult to track a linear narrative through the novel. It is possible that this is Ondaatje’s purpose, to evade a progressive storyline and focus on the undergirding theme.
In the case of Divisdero, this theme appears to be loss. Separation and a tangible hopelessness run through the story. What remains are varied incarnations of love: enduring, dead, unrequited, misled, intricate, despairing, triumphal. And, one must recognize, Ontaatje’s own love for language. It marks every passage of the novel, transforming the stories from ones of recurring desolation and division to magnificent illustrations.