Pico Iyer Journeys

Michael Ondaatje

When we read of Anna fleeing the conflagaration of her life, therefore, hitching a ride in a refrigerated truck through the Central Valley of California, we learn that John Muir found a sea of flowers in the valley, and that the local Maidu mythology sees the Great Central Plain as having been born from an ocean. We read of gunfighters and thieves and “anarchic outlaw girls” in the area’s past, and see how the Okie laborers we might have met in a Steinbeck account are now joined–in good Ondaatje fashion–by waves of other immigrants, speaking Tagalog, Spanish, Italian, Chinese and Japanese. At the end of the drive we come to an abandoned town that, decades before, was settled only–remarkably–by blacks.

In just two pages, in short, describing an escape from a bloody confrontation, Ondaatje takes us on a passage through wonders so absorbing that we feel as if we are stumbling upon an undiscovered world. At the same time, though, at the most dramatic moment of her life, we read almost nothing of Anna’s fears, her feelings, as the narrative moves laterally, as it were, and through indirections. Most writers would either fill the drive with dialogue or emotion, or cut to the next location; Ondaatje’s way is to look out the window, to notice bodies of water (which will chime with the ones he later describes in France), renegade pioneers (who take us back to the contemporary cardsharps we have met in an earlier panel of the story), cities named for “sacrament” and “mercy” (Sacramento and Merced), as if to remind us of the qualities his characters most painfully need.

This “science of patterns,” as he calls it in another book, means that his works both demand and teach the closest of attention. When people call Ondaatje a poetic novelist, they are referring in part, of course, to his rare gift for language and observation: a dog joining a woman in bed sinks its claws into her back “like tuning forks,” and two lovers emerging shyly from an afternoon tryst look “like humbled dormice.” There are peacocks in charm trees here, and a thief who marks his place in a book with a spring of absinthe leaves. A scene of a boy on a runaway horse during an eclipse is as astonishing and hallucinatory as any such passage I can remember reading.

Yet the deeper aspect of his poetic background is that he structures narratives with the interlaced complexity of a lyric poem. At one point, when Coop is learning how to play cards professionally, a section is called, with quiet wit, “The Red and the Black.” But we realize that the title is not entirely casual when, a little later, Claire enters a club in Tahoe, of all places, called the Stendhal. And then, near the end of the book, the French writer Segura thinks back to the nightly seductions of Le Rouge et le Noir, and one sees a parallel story shadowing this one (sees, too, that this is Ondaatje’s first book to take in all the sadnesses of old age, and to be as much about fathers and daughters as about lovers).

In much the same way certain words–”hesitate,” “dangerous,” “wound”–toll through the book like motifs in a piece of music, and after we’ve spent time in an “abandoned base” in the West, something stirs in us, perhaps, when we come to an “abandoned farm” in France, and the “abandoned land” that Segura comes upon, and an “abandoned boat,” the “abandoned town” that Anna arrives at after her flight, even an “abandoned wife.” Few novelists are so precise about the images and clues they scatter through their narratives–wheels and Balzac and images of men sinking under water recur here–and almost the only one I have read who begins to resemble Ondaatje is, in fact, his fellow Torontonian and poet Anne Michaels, who summons in the very title of her only novel, Fugitive Pieces, two central elements of the Ondaatje universe.

Because, like most distinctive novelists, he has so commanding a vision, one knows in advance to some extent what kind of characters (in every sense of the word) we will meet in an Ondaatje book. The other man’s wife, the attractive thief, the wounded fugitive, the scarred nurse: all these figures appear again and again in his work. No writer seems more averse to the 9-to-5 round or the conventional stuff of society; you will no more meet an investment banker in an Ondaatje novel than in the works of W.G. Sebald or Nabokov. (There is a San Francisco public defender here, a man of great integrity though haunted by wounds of his own–he served in Vietnam–but his very name, Aldo Vea, suggests that he is at least in part a tribute to Ondaatje’s novelist friend, also in San Francisco, Alfredo Vea, who likewise served in Vietnam and is mentioned on the first page of Ondaatje’s last book, The Conversations).

In Divisadero, therefore, we meet gypsies and chancers and musicians and drop-outs of every kind, most of them experienced at keeping their distance, yet always reaching towards other drifting strangers whose scars may reflect their own. There is lots of domesticity in the texture of the book–the ceremonial preparation of meals, the collection of herbs from the garden, the rites of sensual love, dogs (as in all Ondaatje’s works) everywhere; yet there are no real homes that last, and all his people are on the move, emotional gypsies. And though he is rightly famous for his scenes of tropical romance–there are women in this book called Aria and Lina and Marie-Neige–he always roots them amidst people with dirt on their shoes and “lived-in, overused” hands.

Scroll to top