Pico Iyer Journeys

Michael Ondaatje

There is always a clear and unhuried spaciousness to Ondaatje’s paragraphs, a weightedness that allows them to breathe, as it were, and to stretch their limbs; they surround you with their density, and proceed with the deliberation and care of a work of contemplation, though bringing their attention to things of the secular world, in this case horses and rivers and fields. Yet in Divisadero it is clear that Ondaatje is seeing what he can do with the traditional novel to open it up: he refers to a “tune that seemed to have no scaffolding” and, a little later, to a “song that had all of its doors and windows open.” He wants to settle things, you feel, without stifling them in the way of a conventional resolution.

“We thought he was formless,” someone says of the broken-up musician in Coming Through Slaughter, thirty-one years ago. “Now I can see he was tormented by order.” And there is much in this novel that suggests that Ondaatje has been thinking hard about how to make sure he is giving us not just scenes, but a forward-moving story, and a whole that can be greater than the sum of its alluring parts. At one point, for instance, Claire links the main characters to a “three-paneled Japanese screen, each one self-sufficient, but revealing different qualities or tones when placed beside the others”; the word “adjacent” comes up at least three times, as if to suggest how, in bringing two of the characters together, we are implicitly evoking a third. In the same way, we are told, very early in the book, “Everything was collage, even genetics” and then, a paragraph later, “Everything is collage.”

To see what lies behind all this, it is most useful, I think, to turn to what was in fact Ondaatje’s most recent book, in 2002, though it was not accorded the attention that most of his novels bring, the extended series of discussions with the celebrated film editor Walter Murch that was called The Conversations. Murch is the kind of craftsman–intelligent, highly idiosyncratic and a little craggy–who might almost be an Ondaatje character (not least because his painter father came from Toronto); and Ondaatje professes himself fascinated, in a fascinating introduction, by the man’s “precise techniques” and by the fact that he is interested in Beethoven, in astronomy, in bees, in seemingly everything (Murch was translating the Italian prose of Curzio Malaparte into English poetry at the time these conversations took place). Beyond that, of course, Murch is an accomplished master in his field, having been responsible for the piecing together and cutting of The Godfather movies, Apocalypse Now, a new version of Touch of Evil that he put together accoding to the unregarded notes of Orson Welles, as well as The English Patient. As they talk, what Ondaatje is really exploring is the art of splicing together a narrative: how to shuffle the order of scenes so as to intensify the tension; how to save a scene in the fifty-third minute by making a small change in the seventh; how, most importantly, to use radical jump cuts to create a natural sense of flow.

The Conversations becomes, therefore, an entirely unusual and intensely detailed investigation into the tricks of story-telling and how for example, when the English patient in the movie tastes a plum, a bell sounds half a mile away to suggest that his past is coming back. “I am always striving for a clear density,” Murch says (much as in Divisadero we read that Bach, another household god in Ondaatje’s work, offers a “spare thicket” of notes). As Ondaatje discusses his own interest in “leaping poetry,” the largely Spanish form in which subliminal connections between juxtaposed passages “reveal a surpising path or link between strangers,” you begin to see that if Running in the Family is his traditional memoir, The Conversations is his typically oblique self-portrait.

As Divisadero draws towards its close, it becomes ever more apparent that Ondaatje is trying something new with narrative, quickened, perhaps, by his talks with the film editor (twenty years ago, in the context of In the Skin of a Lion, Leon Edel brilliantly described Ondaatje’s writing as “verbal cinema”). Perspective shifts constantly in the book, from first person to third, from past to present, till at one climactic moment at the very end we move from one character to another, as in a cinematic dissolve, in the space of a single paragraph. “The right ending,” as Ondaatje wrote in Coming Through Slaughter, “is an open door you can’t see too far out of.”

In its final section, the novel homes in on the writer figure, abandoning his family, remaking his life in his books, even visiting the front of World War I to study diphtheria, which he then catches (a virtuoso paragraph on the history of diphtheria follows). As we watch the character go back and forth between what he remembers and what he imagines, between his experiences and the use he makes of them in art, we are reminded that Ondaatje has always put his faith, more than anything, in the imagination, and the way we have to step away from the world to make it whole again.

“Divisadero” refers to the street in San Francisco where Anna lives, and comes, of course, from the Spanish word for “division.” But it may also derive, Ondaatje tells us, from divisar, which means “to gaze from a distance.” We heal our divisions by looking at them from the safety of faroff. On the very first page of this book, after all, we have been told, by Nietzsche, that “We have art so that we shall not be destroyed by the truth” and that sentence is repeated seven pages from the end. In The English Patient, amidst all the destruction of World War II, a central line informed us “There was no order but for the great maps of art.”

This is a creed that not every reader will accept, and there will always be some for whom Ondaatje is too rarefied and aestheticized. But for those who hold, as we are told here, that “sometimes we enter art to hide within it,” the very beauty of the scenes becomes their own justification, a salve and also a sanctuary. The English Patient gave us a captivating latticework of stories about privacy and dissolving borders, and then almost crushed them with a sudden reference, at the end, to the bomb dropped on Hiroshima; Divisadero ends more quietly by bringing us back to reflections, to disappearances, to the ways in which a river might meet a road. In the process, it extends the liberating and original territory of that earlier trumph so transportingly that it’s hard, on finishing, not to turn back to the opening page and start all over again.

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