Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Intimate and precise - if Virginia Woolf had been a man (Books - Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje)


In Divisadero the writing is not like writing, it's more like being led down a path blindfolded and you are willing to be led. It is desultory or even disordered, jumping from time to time or from first person narrator to omniscient, but it is the disorder of a dream - you look up and wonder how you walked out of your kitchen and into the old theater, but you accept that you did it.

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 - to 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 of 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-rive 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.

I know who he's like - Virginia Woolf. If Virginia Woolf had been entirely herself but a man, she would have written like this. A little leaf rides down the stream quickly and in a straight line for a while, then spinning desperately in an eddy, then sitting in a pool created by a big stone, and then swept out into the current again. But always the leaf. The writing is all flow - precise but dreamy, full of the simple actions of human beings rendered in bright detail, intimate and somehow also cool.

Everything about gold was in opposition to Coop's life on our farm. It must still have felt to him that he came from nowhere, the horror of his parents' murder never spoken of by us. He had been handed the habits and duties that came with farm life, so by now he could ride up to our grandfather's cabin on the ridge with his eyes closed, knowing by the sound of the breeze in a tree exactly where he was and what direction he faced, as if he was within safe architecture. Our land had been cleared of stones and boulders, the wood planks on our kitchen table were wiped clean as a page, the fence gates chained and unchained, chained and unchained. But gold was euphoria and chance to Coop, an illogical discipline, a tall story that included a murder or mistaken identity or a love affair. He hitchhiked two hours northwest onto the Colfax-Iowas Hill road and watched the men with crevassing tools working in the north fork of the Russian River. He was seventeen years old when he impetuously hired himself out for a pittance and the chance of a bonus to man the Anaconda suction hoses. He came home at the end of the week with a twisted back. He remained wordless in front of us, these two girls, his curious listeners, as to where he had been. Wherever he had gone, we could see, he had been somehow altered, been part of a dangerous thing.

And I loved this last passage both as a reflection, an outlook, but also as a key to how he is using language in this book.

Everything is biographical, Lucian 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.

2 comments:

raych said...

Sounds really interesting! Great review.

sunny said...

I'm adding it to my reading pile right now!