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01/27 2015

Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje

ondaatje_coverggla07_highIt’s been a while since I had a hardback book in my hands.  On the trains, planes, and in waiting rooms, everyone has an e-reader.  I’m not one of those people, but I usually have a floppy paperback that I write in and dog ear and sometimes take a highlighter to.  December 26 – I go to see Anna in LA and she gives me a hardback and writes a wish and a date on the inside of it.  I remember this tradition that is fast fading from social convention.  People don’t give books much anymore, let alone hardbacks that they leave a message in.  I am grateful for this and I take it with me on the train.

This book is “Divisadero” by Michael Ondaatje.  This book journeys with me on the train and is exactly what I need.  It is a strong story, it is well written, and when I look out the window at the moving world I can think about the characters, I think about this story.  I needed a distraction so deep I could put my emotions into characters and I do so fully that when I sleep the second night I dream about a blue table and the people around it.

This story is actually three stories and they are connected with loose strings and a blue table.  Actually two blue tables – but they are married in this story.  One painted before a storm that not only thundered in the sky but ripped apart a family.  The other the centerpiece of two love stories that traveled across Spain.  The blue table is a powerful symbol that in every one of these rooms brightens the space it occupies.  Ondaatje is a thoughtful storyteller in the manner that he brings such simple things to the forefront around the tragedies in the stories told.

The first story titled “Anna, Claire, and Coop” is about three children that incidentally are not blood relatives in any way but are raised by the same man as siblings.  Anna is the biological daughter, Claire taken home for some reason from the hospital with Anna after her mother dies in childbirth, and Coop taken in after his parents are horrifically murdered.  I find some parts of this narrative to have holes in logic, but not to the extent that I lose it completely or get frustrated.  Minor things – such as an angry father driving a young girl away from home – where is he taking her?  How do you lose a 15 year old girl at a rest stop forever?  Again, nothing to lose me completely but I still had questions here.  Anna ends up in Spain with a lover – time is definitely not linear in this book.  We move back and forth gently like a rocking chair and I love it.  The story follows a tragedy to the adult lives of Anna, Claire and Coop and the separate, seeming never to cross again paths.  The past wakes from time to time, but falls away again, such as when Anna goes to tell her lover something from her past and “then suddenly Anna stopped thinking, her hesitation disappeared.  Ahead of them a hare was peering from the border of darkness.  She waited for it to take a leap into the light.  Curiosity, courage, it was what they both wished for beneath their pounding hearts” ( 95).

The second story is “The Family in the Cart” about the man that becomes Anna’s lover, as a young man with his gypsy mother and thief of a father who take up and settle next to an old man.  I initially was disappointed to see the story of Anna, Claire, and Coop set aside and felt the change was jarring.   It didn’t take long though, for me to fall back in love.  This old writer, Lucien Segura (who lived in the house in Spain Anna would later occupy) takes up with a young family.  He has left his life and he joins his with these strangers.  This old man who has left his own family and the lapses into his own childhood as the step son of a clock repairman.  What is so powerful is the imagery here, in photographs.  At the end, we are looking at pictures and Anna again, “we can guess the relationship between the unseen photographer an this laughing, muddy woman, weeds around the fingers of her hand, gesturing to him in an intimate argumentative pleasure.  This person who is barely Anna” (188).

The last story is “The House in Demu” about the childhood of Lucien Segura.  Again, I felt snapped out of one story too abruptly and sent to another.  At this point I decided that maybe this was an underlying takeaway from this book.  You cannot always choose the path you are on, and sometimes what you think you will get to see next is suddenly as far aways as a decade past.  We cannot count on the direction of our path, and the most successful navigators of this ever changing world are those who do not argue the change in direction, but rather look up and think – sure, why not?  So we do with this story that next takes us to the path of this old writer who has a childhood, love, a war, a family and then back to his childhood home where he takes the blue table from the home of the first love he had.  Of this story, and the two before it I find that there is an ongoing theme of love lost.  Also kind of an incest-but-not-incest pattern where love develops between characters who are not blood relatives but grow up together – or a man who falls in love with his sister in law.  I don’t linger on this theme as much as I do the idea of loss.  In this book, lost love and lost siblings sing through each story.  We ache for those we’d love to just to have another dinner with, get another slice of cheese from our childhood home with our sleeping family nearby.

Time to go buy a blue table.  Also, understand that no path is controlled, and you cannot force it.  As Ondaatje says, “will these children in their eventual cities, turn out to be the heroes of their own lives?” (273).  One can only hope.