Divisadero by Michael OndaatjeAuthor: Michael Ondaatje
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (2007)
Number of Pages: 273
How long it took me to read: 3 days
Where I got this book: I saw it on the bookshelf in the flat I’m subletting in Berlin.
ISBN: 978 0 307 26635 4

Like a Moth to a Flame

Only a few weeks ago, I drove down Divisadero Street in San Francisco, so this book called to me to read it.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “Everything is biographical, Lucien Freud says. What we make, why it is made, how we draw a dog, who it is we are drawn to, why we cannot forget. 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.” (p.16)

4. “Anna had met no one like him. There appeared to be no darkness in him. Though he would tell her of an earlier relationship that had silenced him completely, and how he had almost not emerged from that. He was in fact coming out of that privacy for the first time with her. All over the world there must be people like us, Anna had said then, wounded in some way by falling in love—seemingly the most natural of acts.” (p.73)

3. “What is your mission, do you think? Vea had asked her once. And she didn’t know. In spite of her desire for a contained universe, her life felt scattered, full of many small moments, without great purpose. That is what she thought, though what is most untrustworthy about our natures and self-worth is how we differ in our own realities from the way we are seen by others.” (p.157)

2. “He pushed the glass doors open and walked into the night so the coldness filled his shirt. He noticed the square of a lit window on the slope of the hill. There was a tightrope between the two farms, and below it an abyss.” (p.221)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “In that small space between them was the smell of cilantro. He had a passion for it, and had crushed it into their salad a few hours earlier. His pockets always held a few herbs, basil or mint, so he could rip off a heel of bread and create a meal wherever he was.” (p.74)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

New Word: jeremiad (noun)

Definition (Source: Oxford Dictionaries): a long, mournful complaint or lamentation; a list of woes
Origins: late 18th century; from French jérémiade, from Jérémie ‘Jeremiah’; from ecclesiastical Latin Jeremias, with reference to the Lamentations of Jeremiah in the Old Testament
As in: “For much of his life the man was unknown, save that he was a poet and later the author of a jeremiad about the Great War.” (p.85)

New Word: villanelle (noun)

Definition (Source: Oxford Dictionaries): a pastoral or lyrical poem of nineteen lines, with only two rhymes throughout, and some lines repeated
Origins: late 19th century; from French; from Italian villanella
As in: “It’s like a villanelle, this inclination of going back to events in our past, the way the villanelle’s form refuses to move forward in linear development, circling instead at those familiar moments of emotion.” (p.136)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“I, like one of the characters in this book, remember the night before George Bush’s ultimatum: ‘Saddam Hussein, leave Iraq or face the wrath of America,’ or sentiments to that effect. I’m looking out over the city while R mixes a drink. His house is perched on a high hill. I stand by the floor-to-ceiling window and feel suspended in a kind of liminal space. Below me is a drop into the pitch black night. In front of me are pin pricks of light stretching all the way to the edge of the valley where the city peters out and the desert swallows any remaining glimmers of urban life. It’s almost midnight. I should have returned home hours ago. I search my imagination for a reason to give my family for why I’m so late. R hands me a tumbler and reaches into my thoughts. He says he’ll drive me home after we finish our drinks. We listen to the ice cracking and relaxing into the vodka.

“When I turn back to the view, I’m no longer faced with the sparkles of an enormous, faceted diamond. The whole city has been extinguished. Not one light penetrates the thick cloak of darkness that has been thrown over it. Night encloses us completely, from below and beyond the glass walls. I spread my fingers against the pane of glass and feel a chilly echo of my movement on the other side. We watch for a few seconds, expecting something to happen. It takes a moment or two for our eyes to adjust to the blackness of the universe; it feels good to be so small, as though held by the earth and given a glimpse into a little part of eternity.

“R is quiet but the sound of his breathing slips between the cracks of my skin. We stand under the mantle of an ancient sky and listen to the flurry of whispering shooting stars. I’m sad and happy all at once—the power outage keeps the city safe from the bombs of an army not known for it geographic prowess but a few miles across the border the sky is about to be host to a ghastly collision of searing flames and choking smoke.”

“The descriptions in this book still my breath and arrest my attention so acutely that I am constantly urging my memory to hold on to the emotion evoked by the words. Ondaatje’s story conveys a sense of sparseness, both in the landscapes he describes as well as in the lives of his characters. Their memories and emotions hold the imprints of a handful of conversations and experiences. My attention is directed to the details of every encounter, every thought, every emotion—it’s like seeing them under a magnifying glass.

“The night air held everything and pressed into his coat and his face.” (p. 79)

“Berlin has fewer street lights than I’m used to and I find that the darkness erases the familiar relationship I have to the air around me during the day. I struggle to balance and have the sensation I’m stumbling. Eventually, I surrender to the unsteadiness and trust that it will still get me to where I want to be. I lean into it and allow myself to be carried along in its current.

“There’s a scene in the book where Anna loses herself in the sensation of dancing and playing in the mud. She’s far away from her past and something different steers her decisions, an inner impulse, intuition. The realization that that kind of freedom is possible is marvelous.”

“There are various kinds of love between the characters in the book. The stories revolve around the sequence of events that lead each person to understand the nature of their love for another and to finally see it for what it really was. It perplexes and amuses me how we enjoy being sold the idea of the kind of love we see in films. There are stereotypes that, broadly speaking, condition us to expect love to be a certain way. Romantic love in German films is painful, and often fatal. French love is passionate, angry, and jealous. American love is cute and funny. The syntax of these fantasies is so hardwired in our brains that we’ve forgotten how to use our senses to truly observe love. We’ve forgotten how to read our interactions with others in a way that can allow us to understand what’s actually going on. What I miss in this story is the scene that you hope will come: the reunion of the main protagonists who were once lovers, years ago. And then I realize: Ondaatje doesn’t give me that scene for a very good reason—he resists falling prey to my false ideals of how a romantic story should end. Instead, he reflects what we all actually experience in our love lives—endings full of questions.”

Viveca Mellegard

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