Let’s call it the Michael Ondaatje phenomenon. It’s that state of woozy, I’ve-seen-Shangri La high that book critics seem to fall into after reading one of his novels. Mesmerized by his luminous prose, his painterly scenes, his supple and original structures and his unforgettable characters — there you go, I’m doing it, too — they fall at the feet of the master, turning poetic themselves while trying to describe his work.
They use words like incandescent, majestic, seductive, haunting. And any fault they may find is dimmed and turns insignificant, overshadowed by the overall brilliance of his art.
It’s no different with his latest novel, Divisadero, another coup in a line of Ondaatje coups that include the dreamlike English Patient.
Divisadero, Ondaatje’s fifth novel, tells the story of a pair of teenage sisters and their brother-like farmhand whom their father has unofficially adopted. The story begins on a farm in northern California in the 1970s and ends with the hybrid family divided on two separate continents years later. One powerful act of love and violence early in the book changes the trajectory of their lives, which somehow become entwined with your own real-life world as Ondaatje spins his tale.
Days after reading the novel, Anna and Coop and Claire stay with you, their emotions still palpable, their losses an ache in you.
It’s vintage Ondaatje — this ability to make readers feel they’re in the depths of the story, to let them steep in the power of his imagination in such a way that they forget it’s make believe.
Riding in a New York City cab to talk to Ondaatje recently, I thought again that he was able to plumb readers’ emotions this way in part because he was a poet first, novelist second — though it’s as a novelist that he’s better known and won his prizes, including the 1992 Booker Prize for The English Patient.
Sitting down in a glassed-in room at the offices of his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, Ondaatje considered his signature style of marrying aspects of poetry to his prose narration.
“One of the things about poetry is that you are more suggestive, I think,” he said. “You don’t say 100 percent. You say 70 percent, or something like that, so that the reader also participates in the story. Now, in the poem, the minute you say too much, it dies. So reader and writer are in a simultaneous location making the final poem.
“I want to bring that into fiction. When I turned from poetry to fiction I thought, `Well, I wonder if you can do that, too.’
“So you are being more suggestive, you are being very tight with words, very precise with words as opposed to poetic, which sometimes people think is too romantic. … And I think the forms of poetry, as the forms of modern art, are more radical perhaps than some of the forms of the novel.
“The strict narrative control of an average novel — which is fine, it is good for thrillers sometimes, but not always to go into new areas and territories. It’s like saying that there can only be one narrator in a book. But if we live in a world … where there’s more than one opinion. …”
Ondaatje was born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and immigrated in 1962 to Canada, where he still lives. He had six books of poetry out before his first novel, “Coming Through Slaughter,” was published in 1976.
Loosely based on the lives of a jazz musician and a photographer in New Orleans at the turn of the century, Coming Through Slaughter is the first example of the kind of structure Ondaatje favors to build his novels.
He works as though he’s putting together a puzzle — one vividly drawn, masterfully told one scene after another, precise strokes that put flesh on his characters, then on to another scene perhaps in the future, perhaps in the past, and on and back, with detours here and there, the bits and pieces all sewn together until gradually a story begins to emerge.
Ondaatje won the Books in Canada First Novel Award for the novel.
Divisadero boasts a structure that at first gives the impression of two novellas sewn together by the common character of Anna. The first half is about the young Anna growing up in her hybrid family and going her own way as the family is scattered.
The second half presents the adult Anna exploring the work of writer Lucien Segura in France; Claire and Coop show up only in Anna’s memory. The link is Anna’s consciousness.
Asked the genesis of his latest novel and his story-telling method in Divisadero, Ondaatje said he was inspired at first by the California landscape. He began with the idea of a family in California.
“Then gradually, as the story progressed, I kept seeing this other story happening simultaneously, a story that was sort of a reflection of the story of Coop and Anna in a very different way — the themes of father-child relationship or violence. … So in a way there are two stories, two episodes, that reflect each other and deepen the emotions of each. It’s not your usual structure.”
Ondaatje’s interests and knowledge gained from conversations and the world around him also inform the story. His depiction of Claire’s love of horses, for instance, was powered by friends who keep horses.
He’s known gamblers and been fascinated by them, especially those he met at Lake Tahoe. That found life in his character Coop, a sensitive silent type who earns a living as a gambler in adulthood. Some of these gambling scenes are memorable.
Coop is among Ondaatje’s finest characters. He is someone whose life proceeds in a series of big sadnesses that Ondaatje said he found himself writing as a natural progression. Fate was not kind to Coop, probably because he was “passive around danger,” Ondaatje said.
Ondaatje is glad the novel is done. Each novel takes him about five years to complete. Then, he spends a year or two getting over it before he can even think of writing another novel, he says.
So, for now, he’s doing nothing. Not thinking of another novel. Not writing poetry. And not teaching, either. He swims.
And finally, he said, grinning, he can read for pleasure. He’s looking forward to reading Denis Johnson’s coming book, Tree of Smoke.