Memories Return and Reveal in Ondaatje’s Divisadero
A Contrary review by Frances Badgett

        	Divisadero: a dividing line. Also a point from which you can look far into the distance. Also a street in San Francisco. In Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero, it is an incorrectly folded map joining two incongruities. It is a villanelle with a single shared memory as its refrain. It is an archive of forgotten writing, a farm house in France, a cabin on a ridge in Northern California. It is the buzz and ring of Tahoe casinos and the hum of the engine on an all-night drive. In this story of abandonment and abandoning, of longing and unrequited desire, a violent memory ties together the lives of the characters (Anna, Claire, their father, the farmhand Coop) through the great distances, emotional and physical, that separate them. The longing itself takes on its own proportions, as it forces them to revisit their collective memory, to make sense of the burn of the past. “It is the hunger, what we do not have, that holds us together.”
	Anna, drawn to the distant crackle of an author’s voice in an old recording, decides to make him the subject of her next book. Lucien Segura’s life contains a mystery that Anna feels compelled to solve. She travels to France, taking up residence in his farm house, walking his trails, bathing in his river. She says of him, “There was a sweet shadow and hesitance in Segura. It was like a ruined love, and it was familiar to me. Till then all I knew of his life was his odd departure from his family; that late in life, comfortable, successful, he had climbed into a horse-drawn cart and disappeared. His voice with the wound in it kept haunting me.”
	As she uncovers Segura’s past, Anna treads over her own: her last day on her father’s farm, hitchhiking away from home, away from Coop whom she might have loved, and away from her sister, adopted the week she was born, almost a twin, now a shadow to her. She finds within Segura’s work small clues to her own loss, but Ondaatje rejects a simple resolution. The connection to Lucien is only an instinct for Anna, a sense of his hunger that draws her to him. For the reader, the connection is made clearer and stronger in the final chapters. 
	It is in these final chapters that Ondaatje takes his greatest risk by pulling the reader out of the present of Claire, Coop, and Anna, and placing us squarely in the distant past of Lucien Segura’s life. Rickety at first, with the strong present story still hovering, Ondaatje calls on the structure of the villanelle to weave Anna and her present into Lucien’s life, concluding not through Anna’s experience, Claire’s, or Coop’s, but through the parallel with Segura itself. By pulling them all together, Ondaatje leaves none abandoned.
 	Ondaatje writes, “Not knowing something essential makes you more involved.” The essential mystery that carries the characters away from and toward each other, the quiet moments by a stream, the loud crack of a father’s rage, contain within them the mysteries that carry the reader forward. Ondaatje unfolds these memories, reveals them, loops us back to them, and uncovers more upon each return. “It’s like a villanelle, 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.” Rather than feeling trapped by the characters’ memories, Ondaatje’s reader feels a mystery uncovered, a promise delivered.

Frances Badgett is the fiction editor of Contrary.

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commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | autumn 2007
by Michael Ondaatje
2007, Knopf
“The discovery of us in each other’s arms, under that green sky, a father attempting to murder a boy, a daughter trying to attack a father, is in retrospect something very small, something that might occur within a square inch or two of a Brueghel. But it set fire to the rest of my life.”

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