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From DivisaderoBy our grandfather’s cabin, on the high ridge, opposite a slope of buckeye trees, Claire sits on her horse, wrapped in a thick blanket. She has camped all night and lit a fire in the hearth of that small structure our ancestor built more than a generation ago, and which he lived in like a hermit or some creature, when he first came to this country. He was a self-sufficient bachelor who eventually owned all the land he looked down onto. He married lackadaisically when he was forty, had one son, and left him this farm along the Petaluma road.
Claire moves slowly on the ridge above the two valleys full of morning mist. The coast is to her left. On her right is the journey to Sacramento and the delta towns such as Rio Vista with its populations left over from the Gold Rush.
She persuades the horse down through the whiteness alongside crowded trees. She has been smelling smoke for the last twenty minutes, and, on the outskirts of Glen Ellen, she sees the town bar on fire —the local arsonist has struck early, when certain it would be empty. She watches from a distance without dismounting. The horse, Territorial, seldom allows a remount; in this he can be fooled only once a day. The two of them, rider and animal, don’t fully trust each other, although the horse is my sister Claire’s closest ally. She will use every trick not in the book to stop his rearing and bucking. She carries plastic bags of water with her and leans forward and smashes them onto his neck so the animal believes it is his own blood and will calm for a minute. When Claire is on a horse she loses her limp and is in charge of the universe, a centaur. Someday she will meet and marry a centaur.
The fire takes an hour to burn down. The Glen Ellen Bar has always been the location of fights, and even now she can see scuffles starting up on the streets, perhaps to honour the landmark. She sidles the animal against the slippery red wood of a madrone bush and eats its berries, then rides down into the town, past the fire. Close by, as she passes, she can hear the last beams collapsing like a roll of thunder, and she steers the horse away from the sound.
On the way home she passes vineyards with their prehistoric-looking heat blowers that keep air moving so the vines don’t freeze. Ten years earlier, in her youth, smudge pots burned all night to keep the air warm.
Most mornings we used to come into the dark kitchen and silently cut thick slices of cheese for ourselves. My father drinks a cup of red wine. Then we walk to the barn. Coop is already there, raking the soiled straw, and soon we are milking the cows, our heads resting against their flanks. A father, his two eleven-year-old daughters, and Coop the hired hand, a few years older than us. No one has talked yet, there’s just been the noise of pails or gates swinging open.
Coop in those days spoke sparingly, in a low-pitched monologue to himself, as if language was uncertain. Essentially he was clarifying what he saw—the light in the barn, where to climb the approaching fence, which chicken to cordon off, capture, and tuck under his arm. Claire and I listened whenever we could. Coop was an open soul in those days. We realized his taciturn manner was not a wish for separateness but a tentativeness about words. He was adept in the physical world where he protected us. But in the world of language he was our student.
At that time, as sisters, we were mostly on our own. Our father had brought us up single-handed and was too busy to be conscious of intricacies. He was satisfied when we worked at our chores and easily belligerent when it became difficult to find us. Since the death of our mother it was Coop who listened to us complain and worry, and he allowed us the stage when he thought we wished for it. Our father gazed right through Coop. He was training him as a farmer and nothing else. What Coop read, however, were books about gold camps and gold mines in the California northeast, about those who had risked everything at a river bend on a left turn and so discovered a fortune. By the second half of the twentieth century he was, of course, a hundred years too late, but he knew there were still outcrops of gold, in rivers, under the bunch grass, or in the pine sierras.
Now and then our father embraced us as any father would. This happened only if you were able to catch him in that no-man’s-land between tiredness and sleep, when he seemed wayward to himself. I joined him on the old covered sofa, and I would lie like a slim dog in his arms, imitating his state of weariness—too much sun perhaps, or too hard a day’s work.
Claire would also be there sometimes, if she did not want to be left out, or if there was a storm. But I simply wished to have my face against his checkered shirt and pretend to be asleep. As if inhaling the flesh of an adult was a sin and also a glory, a right in any case. To do such a thing during daylight would have been unthinkable, he’d have pushed us aside. He was not a modern parent, he had been raised with a few male rules, and he no longer had a wife to qualify or compromise his beliefs. So you had to catch him in that twilight state, when he had ceded control on the tartan sofa, his girls enclosed, one in each of his arms. I would watch the flicker under his eyelid, the tremble within that covering skin that signalled his tiredness, as if he were being tugged in mid-river by a rope to some other place. And then I too would sleep, descending into the layer that was closest to him. A father who allows you that should protect you all of your days, I think.
Reading Group Guide
“Ravishing and intricate. . . . So unforgettable that it's hard, on finishing, not to turn back to the opening page and start all over.”
—Pico Iyer, The New York Review of Books
The introduction, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enliven your group's discussion of Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero. This is his first novel since Anil's Ghost (2000), and it may be his most complex: arching across the Gold Rush country of Northern California in the 1970s to the Nevada gambling circuit on the eve of the Iraq war to the peasant villages of France almost a century earlier. What unites the book's various settings is an ensemble of characters connected by blood, desire, and deeper, more mysterious correspondences. There are siblings, or almost-siblings, who become lovers, and a husband and wife who pass themselves off as brother and sister. There's also a father who adopts children, but later turns on two of them with terrible violence, and another who abandons his family, only to acquire a second family of a sort in his old age. Throughout are name changes, identity shifts, betrayals, and a continuing search for truth.
1. “The raw truth of an incident never ends,” Anna says [p. 1]. What might she mean by this, and how is her statement borne out in the course of the novel?
2. Setting plays a large role in Divisadero. How does Ondaatje characterize the Northern California countryside of Anna's childhood? How would you compare it to the French countryside where Segura spends his life and where the grown-up Anna retraces it? To what extent are this novel's characters connected to their physical environments?
3. Anna is an only child, but one with two adoptive siblings. So, for that matter, are Claire and Coop. What is the significance of adoption in this novel? Are its “natural” children necessarily the most favored? Which of these characters becomes an orphan later on, by necessity or by choice? How might losing one's original family have an effect, for better or for worse? Why do you think Anna is introduced in a chapter titled “The Orphan”? And what might she mean when she observes, “Those who have an orphan's sense of history love history” [p. 141]?
4. Because they were raised together, Anna's affair with Coop has incestuous overtones. Could this be why her father reacts so brutally when he finds them together? Might this be what drives her to reject her former life, or do you think there's another reason? Compare this liaison with the novel's other quasi-incestuous pairings: the young Lucien Segura and Marie-Neige, who has become a symbolic sister to him; Lucien's daughter Lucette and her younger sister's fiancé; Marie-Neige and her husband when they masquerade as brother and sister. How does the author seem to view these relationships? Do they seem to represent a perversion of intimacy or a heightening of it?
5. Closely aligned with the theme of incest is that of hidden or mistaken identity, a theme suggested by the Sanskrit term gotraskhalana, which denotes “calling a loved one by a wrong name” [p. 152]. Which of Ondaatje's characters pretends to be someone else? Which of them mistakes one person for another, or is misled into doing so? Which of them sloughs off a name, like the thief who calls himself Liébard and then, suddenly, on a whim, Astolphe? What do these impostures and confusions suggest about the nature of identity? Why might Liébard/Astolphe refuse to be photographed?
6. The past-both personal and collective-plays an important role in Divisadero. After turning her back on her childhood, Anna becomes an archivist, cataloguing the past via Lucien Segura's life. After two brutal beatings as a result of his love affairs, Coop forgets his past. How does the past function in these instances, among others? Would you say these characters are trapped in it or sustained by it?
7. At what points does history intrude into this novel, and with what effect? Why might Ondaatje have chosen to set one scene involving Coop during the first Gulf War and another on the eve of the 2003 Iraq invasion?
8. How is the theme of the past reflected in the novel's chronological scheme, which moves from the 1970s to 2003, then backward in time to the turn of the last century, then forward once more? Why might Ondaatje have chosen to structure Divisadero this way? How does this affect the novel's sense of suspense, and how might you relate this to the kind of suspense that young Lucien and Marie-Neige find in The Black Tulip?
9. Most of Ondaatje's characters are looking for something or someone: Anna for a long-dead writer, Coop for love and treasure (dredged from the river or extracted from the suckers at a card table), Claire for Coop. Discuss the role quests play in Divisadero. How, in particular, do they form a bridge between the novel's present and its multiple pasts? Which of the characters' quests is destructive, and which useful, even vital?
10. There are certain key repetitions in the novel. Discuss the doubling (and sometimes more than doubling) of the following: an attack by an animal, a woman nursing an injured man, a father coming upon his daughter making love, a man imparting a skill or craft to a younger one.
11. What role does craft play in this novel? Discuss those scenes in which someone learns to, for example, build a cabin, or deal poker, or repair a clock, or write a novel. What-apart from the skill-is being imparted? What distinguishes those characters who have mastered a craft from those who haven't?
12. Most of Divisadero's characters are motivated by love, of various sorts. How does Ondaatje characterize these kinds of love? Which kinds are exalting and which degrading, and why? Compare Anna's love for Coop to the love that Claire feels for him, Coop's love for Anna to that which he later feels for Bridget, Rafael's love of his mother to Segura's love of his daughter, Lucette.
13. The novel takes its name from a street in San Francisco where Anna lives for a while. In Spanish the word means both a division and a vantage point [pp. 142-3]. Does this double meaning suggest a way of looking at-viewing-the entire novel?
14. At least two of this book's narratives lack an obvious conclusion. Why might Ondaatje have chosen to end them when he does? How is this related to Anna's aforementioned statement: “The raw truth of an incident never ends”?