The patchworkof identity

No matter how complete our idea of a person or an event might be, it is always adulterated by our own subjectivity. A multitude of individual nuances accompanies each of our understandings, despite the desire to try to explain things as truthfully and adeptly as we can. This idea is at the core of Michael Ondaatje’s latest novel, Divisadero (Bloomsbury).

The title comes “from the Spanish word for ‘division’… or it might derive from the word divisor, meaning ‘to gaze at something from a distance'”. Thus readers are given room to interpret the author’s intentions as they encounter fragmented portraits of the characters who detail the enigmatic and poetic prose of Ondaatje’s expansive landscape.

The opening section of the novel details the youth of three children raised as siblings, though none is related to the other.

Anna, Claire and Coop live naïve and uncomplicated lives with their quietly loving father in the countryside near California until an event, turbulently charged with a mix of love and violence, forces them from their Eden-like home and their simplistic childhoods.

For the next few chapters the reader is given periodic glimpses into their three lives, the paths of which have long since diverged, intersecting more in intimate memories than physically.

When we pick up the story again, 20 or so years later, Coop has become a notorious card shark, Claire a legal detective and Anna, the novel’s narrator, lives in a remote French village writing the biography of the obscure French novelist, Lucien Segura.

Midway through, the novel takes a turn, leaving the characters the reader has grown intimate with and moving to early 20th-century France.

It is here that we encounter the story of Segura, again episodically, through moments of dusty pre-war splendour that the author effortlessly weaves together. The reader is left spellbound by both the poetry of the writing and the beauty of the often-simple moments the text illuminates. Figures that enter the focal characters’ lives are also given credence, and their stories are often followed tangentially as Anna, Coop, Claire or Segura encounter them.

However insignificant their stories might seem, they are essential to the thematic tautness of the novel. “Everything is collage, even genetics. There is the hidden presence of others in us, even those we have known briefly. We contain them for the rest of our lives, at every border that we cross.”

Just as The English Patient, Ondaatje’s most acclaimed novel to date and the recipient of the 1992 Booker Prize, aimed to traverse and denounce the real and imaginary borders that enclose our lives, so Divisadero becomes less a cohesive narrative than an attempt to capture impressionistically the myriad moments that gather and coalesce in memory to form a person’s consciousness.

The various intertextual references in the book serve not only to expound on the characters through their commentary on various authors, but also give readers insight into the setting.

References to Faulkner’s uneasy and disturbed Midwest, Tolstoy’s epic sprawling narratives and Hugo’s realistic post-revolution France occur throughout, all underscored by an honest and nostalgic authorial voice that rings of Marquez’s magic realism.

“With memory, with the reflection of an echo, a gate opens both ways. We can circle time. A paragraph or an episode from another era will haunt us in the night, as the words of a stranger can. The awareness of a flag fluttering noisily within its colour brings me into a sudden blizzard in Petaluma. Just as a folded map places you beside another geography.”

Subtly, the reader is included in the novel. Just as the characters’ lives are influenced by the paths they cross and the strangers they come to know, the reader cannot only identify but also comes to know the novel’s characters, and thus they, and the prose of the novel, are etched on to the reader’s consciousness in a unique and significant way.

The novel ultimately fails to fully capture any universal truth, but it does so intentionally, because to purport to be able to portray or explain the ineffable and shadowy areas of our psyche would be pretentious. There are no easy answers; identity is complex and always in flux. It is all the more beautiful for that.

Near the novel’s end, Anna says: “‘We have art,’ Nietzsche says, ‘so that we shall not be destroyed by the truth.'” In the case of Divisadero, Ondaatje’s art not only enthralls, but brings us closer to the truth without ever attempting to diminish or simplify it.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories


press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday