One of a Kind
Haunted lives and lucky hands at the poker table.
Jun 25, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 39 • By TED GIOIA
Yet this second interlude in Divisadero is abandoned even more abruptly than it begins. The last hundred pages shift their focus, in a jarring and unconvincing manner, to the life and times of Lucien Segura, a French poet from the first half of the 20th century. The grown-up Anna is studying him as part of her work as a literary scholar. Yet beyond this, the characters and events of the first half of the novel fade completely from view in these concluding chapters. This type of disjointed structure worked well in The English Patient, where the musings and recollections of a dying man served as a unifying device linking the various threads in a complicated plot. But here Ondaatje has no such justification for this unexpected break in the narrative flow. His book reads like three separate stories--each one well crafted in isolation--struggling to join hands in a single novel.
Ondaatje's sparkling prose somewhat compensates for this defect. In his early books, such as Coming Through Slaughter and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Ondaatje veered back and forth between poetry and prose, almost as if he aspired to some exemplary merging of the two approaches. His writing today is less overtly experimental, but the meticulous care he imparts to each sentence is still apparent. His stories frequently depict characters reading aloud from great works of literature--Herodotus, Kipling, Dumas, and the like--and they give great attention to the placement of commas, the cadences of the succeeding phrases. This is also the best way to experience Ondaatje's own writing, and I found myself, while reading Divisadero, returning to certain paragraphs and sentences, and reading them aloud, basking in the aural pleasure of his text.
Even so, the finished work would have been more powerful and coherent if presented in the form of three novellas, separate tales with some overlapping characters--like the seven stories of Faulkner's Go Down, Moses. By trying to squeeze these disparate accounts into a single narrative structure, Ondaatje leaves his reader hanging, expecting connections and closure at Divisadero's end that he never delivers.
Perhaps the title inadvertently highlights this limitation. Divisadero Street in San Francisco is only mentioned in passing here, but Ondaatje lingers to point out that there are two possible sources for the name. One interpretation links it to the Spanish word for "division" while the other etymology refers to the word divisar, which means to "gaze at from a distance."
Ondaatje's novel embodies the first of these perspectives. It is a divided work, a splintering of stories, which resists our best efforts to pull the various narratives together into a coherent whole.
Ted Gioia is the author of Work Songs and The History of Jazz.