“Gotraskhalana, is a term in Sanskrit poetics for calling a loved one by a wrong name, and means literally, ‘stumbling on the name.’ It’s a familiar occurrence in the Restoration-like fables of marital life and love affairs collected by the scholar Wendy Doniger. What these verbal accidents do is aim a flashlight into the brain, reveal its vast museum of facts and desires.”
Writer Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient) is not compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Faulkner for nothing. He has been called a thinker, an explorer and a seeker of truth. What sets him apart for me is his fabulous use of language and ability to concoct intricate plots yet narrate them simply and effortlessly like a beautifully woven tapestry, these are his strengths.
While some accuse Ondaatje’s work of being too poetic, that’s what brings music and melody to his newest work, Divisadero.
Like jazz music, the narrative in Divisadero traverses back and forth in time and place. Each character finds some foothold in a present born of their entrenched past. Anna, the protagonist, narrates this story, which is set in 1970’s Northern California. A father and his teenage daughters Anna and Claire work their farm with the help of Coop, a local boy. But early in the story, this simple life is torn apart and sets fire to the rest of their lives. The latter half of the novel explores Coop’s subsequent life as a poker player, Claire’s attempt to rebuild her life as a public defender’s legal researcher and Anna’s pursuit of an academic career at Berkeley.
In parallel, Anna’s interest in French literature takes her to the French countryside and to the home of the late author Lucien Segura. As she delves into research and slowly reconstructs Segura’s life, she finds that Segura’s life is connected–episode-by-episode and image-by-image to the story of her own family. Love, loss and reminiscence play soulful melodies through this lyrical narrative, laying upon it the Ondaatje brand.
Divisadero is a word that Ondaatje says he fell in love with many, many years ago. A word that has two meanings at least, – it is a street in San Francisco from the Spanish word for “divide,” but it also means “gaze from afar” in Spanish. “I just loved that name: it had first of all, more vowels than my own name, which is rare! And it was the sound – a great word,” says Ondaatje.
— Written by Visi Tilak, an award winning writer who lives in Ashland, MA.