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Books

What’s old is new again

Michael Ondaatje’s latest book looks back

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Published 6/6/2007

Divisadero, the latest book from Michael Ondaatje, of The English Patient fame, can be looked at as a marvelously poetic skewering of the novel form, or a gigantic game of bait-and-switch. Count me as one of the victims of his sleight-of-hand/slight-of-plot approach. I enjoyed the parts of the book that took place in 1960s northern California, chronicling the childhood of his characters Anna, Claire and Coop. Then the story shifts to the early 1990s and Coop has become a card shark, Claire is a public defender and Anna is in rural France researching an obscure one-eyed writer named Lucien Segura. Ondaatje's Old World lyrical imagery is fascinating when translated to a modern context, and his story of strung-out gamblers is a terrific read. But just when things are getting interesting, he dumps everything and dips back in time to tell the history of Segura — for the remaining 100 pages. The point he wants to make is that in the sad, depressing story of Segura, Anna finds parallels to everything in her life. But the reader loses some of the more interesting characters in the book. I brought my frustration up with Ondaatje in a recent interview.

Metro Times: I was very disappointed when there wasn't more of Coop and Claire, especially Coop, because he turned into such an interesting, edgy character.

Michael Ondaatje: Yes, in a way it is a very kind of odd structure and direction. It just seemed to me to be the right one for this book, and for Anna to deal with her life and her past. By talking about Lucien Segura all the connections are there between the two stories, the parallels and the echoes. That's the way I wanted to try to write the story.

MT: In the book, you do a great job writing about Coop and Claire in the modern world, yet the past seems to be tugging at you and ultimately taking over completely. Is this a reflection of where you are most comfortable as a writer?

Ondaatje: No, in fact I love being in the present, finally. My books are always set in 1940 or 1932. It was such a pleasure to be in a Winnebago or an Airstream or something like that. I like the world of Lucien Segura and liked writing about it, but I liked the world of Lake Tahoe and Nevada City, Calif.

MT: You have great detail in the book about poker, the law and smoking crack. Are these all things you've had personal experience with?

Ondaatje: Do you have a lawyer over there asking you these questions? I did some research and met a good many full-time poker players. It was very important to try to get that world right and discover that genre of life, and I did know lawyers and I did know some people who have had a pass at the drugs.

MT: The gamblers' lingo you used sounded pretty obscure, things like "riffle-stack" and "Crimpwork" and calling a dealer a "mechanic."

Ondaatje: I don't remember what the lingo was. I might have made some of it up.

MT: Are there parallels in your life between you and Lucien?

Ondaatje: I kind of intentionally didn't want to write about myself. I wanted to create a character that was not that dramatically interesting, but his internal life was quite complicated. It's very tough to write about a writer. I didn't want to fall into making it a kind of dramatic guy in New York getting drunk every night and writing until dawn, that kind of stuff.

MT: In the book you wrote: "Lucien never gave his readers the happiness of a resolution." But you didn't either.

Ondaatje: Aw, c'mon, sure I did! There's a great resolution! No, he doesn't. OK, I'm guilty there.

MT: Any chance you would do a sequel and take the story further, maybe bring the characters together, since Anna never gets to see Coop or Claire again?

Ondaatje: I have no idea. I have not planned that in any way.

MT: I'm trying to imagine what would happen between Anna and Coop.

Ondaatje: Yes, you see, that's you as the reader writing the last part of the book.

MT: So you are seeding writers out there?

Ondaatje: Yes, I'll have a franchise in a couple of years. No, I think for me I don't like the end of a book where everyone's got wrapped up neatly and on this shelf or that shelf.

MT: With The English Patient, you had a huge film. Was there pressure with this novel to try to write something that would be cinematic?

Ondaatje: Not at all. What works in a book doesn't always work in a film. And, in a way, the last thing I would want to do as a writer is sit down and write a film. If I were going to do that, I'd write a screenplay or direct. In a book you do something you can't do in a film. And maybe this structure would never survive, or it would be quite a radical film. I wasn't thinking in terms of film, but we all watch enough film and television so we have that in our vocabulary, so there are elements there, but it wasn't something I was looking for, certainly.

MT: Did you spend a lot of time planning out where this novel was going to go?

Ondaatje: I kind of leapt into it, and then gradually discovered the path I wanted to follow or that seemed the right path for this book. If I'd had everything planned beforehand it would have seemed a bit too studied or cooked or something.

MT: Did you start with a specific image?

Ondaatje: I think the scene with the barn and the wild horse sort of began it. I think it was a landscape that I knew and wanted to write about, this country that was full of its own history. It's got the chicken farms, it's got the gold rush a hundred miles away, and it's got San Francisco to the south. It's an intriguing landscape and, as far as I know, hasn't been written about very much. And it linked with the world of Lucien Segura on a small farm in France — there seemed to be a kind of channel of connections between the two of them. But it did begin in California.

MT: The unruly ferocity of nature, embodied in the horse and the dog that both bring around big changes in people lives, that's a connector.

Ondaatje: Yes. And there's also the stuff about parenting and fathers and children, those kinds of relationships, sisters — lots of strong echoes between the people, all the different wars.

MT: It doesn't seem like anyone has a good time of it as far as childbirth or childhood is concerned. Mothers die and kids grow up to have rotten lives. Is this a reflection of your experiences?

Ondaatje: I had a great childhood, I don't know what the hell happened to these guys. Well, it was OK, some bad luck, bad timing. No orphans.

MT: Are you a poet first or novelist first

Ondaatje: I'm not sure anymore. I did begin as a poet. My first work was for books of poetry, and I've had some other books of poetry since then. I've sort of migrated into writing fiction and I go back and forth, but I guess now I spend most of my time writing fiction. It's something that I've learned to enjoy. I've taken some of my personal rules of poetry, of what I think poetry does really well, hopefully, and tried to put some of that into fiction.

MT: What are your personal rules of poetry?

Ondaatje: I think you have to be able to write very tight. The thing about a novel is it has a very open, casual voice, which is what also appeals to me. But one can in the editing really tighten the book so that everything has a purpose — a purpose of language or a purpose of plot and of character. So those things are important in fiction. And also, I think, poetry is an art form which is three-quarters said. You don't describe everything in the room; you describe the essential things so the reader participates in filling in the picture as well. I think I do that in my prose, which gets me in trouble sometimes. I like to read a book where I'm participating and not just being led by the author. I want the reader to bring himself or herself into the story, and bring some of their connections that aren't obviously said.

 

Michael Ondaatje reads from Divisadero at 7 p.m., June 8, at Borders, 612 E. Liberty, Ann Arbor; 734-668-7652.

David Wildman is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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