Pico Iyer Journeys

Michael Ondaatje

More than any writer I’ve read Ondaatje is fascinated by craft and by the special lore and lingo of the various occupations he meets, the secret tricks of, in this case, the cardsharp, the clockmaker, the peasant farmer. When Coop receives a training in how to cheat at cards, for example, we read sentences that delight in his new vernacular: “He will place this riffle-stacked slug of cards beneath a crimp, about where the player on his right usually cuts the cards. If the man cuts at the crimp, there will be no need for Coop to hop or shift the deck secretly.” When the action moves to France, and the agricultural region of Gascony, we read how a woman “sprinkled chimney soot over the rows where she had planted cabbage, dragged lime and ammonia through the claylike soil, and used cow dung, where it was sandy and horse manure where it was chalk.” Ondaatje’s descends into the work of his characters as deeply as into their landscapes (and their histories).

Part of the great delight of reading one of his books, therefore, comes in the sensation of a deeply curious traveler opening out his worn suitcase and letting all the odd pieces of information or memorable lines or exotic bric-a-brac he’s collected tumble out. We learn here how troubadours in medieval France imitated birdcalls so effectively that they may have changed migratory patterns. We read that a laser scope can measure the vibrations in the glass of a window across the street. We encounter the neglected recordings of Thelonius monk, the Sanskrit fables collected by the scholar Wendy Doniger, the fact that Victor Hugo inserted a fictional street in Paris for Jean Valjean to hide in in Les Miserables.

For some readers this may all seem too much a part of the Ondaatje imagination and too far from the workaday world. When, for example, Coop falls in with the maverick gamblers of California and Nevada, one of them, called the Dauphin, beguiles the hours by talking of Lady Murasaki, while another teaches Coop distraction techniques by telling a story of Tolstoy. After the group has pulled off a $300,000 scam in a Vegas casino, the gambler’s sweetheart who accompanies Coop in the getaway car starts talking about, of all things, a radio interview with William Styron she once heard.

There are also moments when Ondaatje’s imagination is so strong that the characters he graces with his interest come to seem almost interchangeable. It’s hard to distinguish the Deadhead cardsharp from the one who says, “My name is Edward Dorn. Like the poet”; the Berkeley researcher born to privilege in California comes to merge a little with the peasant girl in France who’s only just learned how to read. There are six different romances in the book, and each of them is gorgeous and singular in its effects; but if you were to be presented with any scene from one of them blindfold, it might be hard to say whether it belonged to the writer or the gypsy.

Beyond that, Ondaatje suffers, through no fault of his own, from the rare predicament of a serious literary novelist who has seen one of his books turned into a hugely popular, Academy Award-sweeping movie. There are many scenes in this book–of a man swinging through the belfry of a medieval church in France, of a man wooing a woman by reading a book to her, of a character summoning her lover in a garden shower, and of people in abandoned houses taking on new identities–that may feel familiar only because they all rhyme with moments in Anthony Minghella’s memorable film of The English Patient. In fact, of course, Minghella drew for his inspired reimaginings only on the imagination of Ondaatje, but it can feel as if Ondaatje is influenced by Minghella, rather than only by himself.

And yet, at the same time, the very closeness of the characters to one another is part of what enables Ondaatje to attempt some remarkable gymnastics. When Anna, for example, settles in France, she comes across a gypsy (who–this being Ondaatje–sits in a chair in an empty field under the moon and plays the guitar in emulation of his hero Django Reinhardt). She is drawn to him because of his “hesitancy,” his “shyness,” as “though in the past he had been burned by something.” On first reading, perhaps, we just savor the supple details of their courtship. But as we proceed, we realize that the “hesitant” links the gypsy to the writer Segura and his love, who are always described with that same word; that the “burned” is not random, because fires run through this book; and that the gypsy’s talk of his territorial father takes us back to an horse we met on the first page, with the distinctive name of “Territorial.” Those figures forgotten by history, Anna says–and she may be speaking for her maker–are “essential as underground rivers” and rivers will also run through the book as the writer tries to bring the meandering waterways of France together with the straight roads of the American West.

This knowledge of many worlds, and eagerness to bring them together, begins to account for the unique flavor of this writer’s work. When we read of a gambler said to have won his wife in a bet, it is as if a moment from The Mahabharata has suddenly come into the parched deserts of the New World, with their characters otherwise compounded of Bob Dylan and Cormac McCarthy. And his ability to fashion scenes that are at once exact and suggestive accounts not only for the sensual thrill of the books, but also for their literary pleasures, and the sense of several stories unfolding at once. At one point, in the gambling section of the book, the Gulf War breaks out in the background, on TV, and Ondaatje is the rare writer who decides to name the agents of destruction–”the Cobra helicopter, the Warthog, the Spectre, and its twin, the Spooky”–and to catalogue the “thermobaric fuel, volatile gasses, and finely powdered explosives” they drop. When you recall that these scenes are playing out on a screen in the back of a sealed and air-conditioned casino, where a group of misfits is taking on a band they call “the Born-Agains”–in a game of Texas Hold’Em, no less–while the “ `eye in the sky’ ” take in every deceit, you realize that the book is, among many other things, a parable of contemporary America.

The best way to see what Ondaatje is attempting in every novel he writes is to look at the occupations he highlights. In Coming Through Slaughter he focused on a wildly improvising jazzman and an archival photographer; in In The Skin of a Lion he placed bridge-builders at the center; in The English Patient he was concerned with map-makers, bomb-defusers, archaeologists and nurses. In Divisadero, the two main characters are a historical researcher and a gambler. And this is no stray detail, I think, because the book takes a great gamble itself by attempting to do things with narrative that have seldom been done before (leaving two major stories up in the air, in the hope that they can be imaginatively tied together by a third).

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