In Divisadero, his new book, Michael Ondaajte traverses the lives of three siblings who grow up together and are separated after a traumatic experience. In parallel, he also explores the life of a relatively lesser known(possibly fictitious?) French writer.
Spoiler warning: If you’d rather skip the plot, click here.
Anna and Claire are sisters, not by blood, but by adoption. Anna’s mother died giving birth to her, and her father, in a gesture countering the loss of his wife, adopted another baby born in the same week and whose mother too had died. Coop, otherwise an orphan after the brutal killing of his family, is elder to the sisters and was adopted earlier as a farm hand by their father. Life is serene in this farm near Petaluma, California, with milking of cows, riding of horses and herding of cattle, till Anna falls in love with Coop and the two are drawn to each other like magnets, eventually to be discovered by the taciturn father, who, in a fit of rage, brutally attacks Coop. Anna, unable to believe her father’s violence and in the hysteria of her lover’s annihilation, stabs and injures her father. This singular event separates not only the young lovers, but also Anna from the rest of her family. She runs away and so does Coop, although their own separate ways. Claire remains with their father in the farm. Their lives take different turns and it is these journeys that we are led through.
Anna, now a published scholar of European literature, is deeply traumatized by the incident. She tries to wipe out her previous incarnation. She changes her name and makes no attempts to knit back ties with Claire or her father. Yet she is haunted by her past, her fondness of Claire, her days of love with Coop and the bloody aftermath, to such a degree that she has had no steady relationships since. She devotes her life to the pursuit of the lives of others. We see her in a remote French village called Dému, demystifying the life of early twentieth century French writer Lucien Segura. Here, living in Lucien Segura’s last home before his death, she meets Rafael, a carefree gitan (gypsy) who had known Lucien Segura. Rafael had been a child then. Rafael’s unsophisticated, frank yet mysterious ways stirs in Anna a yearning that had been long absent in her life.
Cooper becomes a gambler of sufficient adroitness but insufficient reserve. He teams up with Dorn, Dorn’s wife Ruth, and a few others in Tahoe and plan to rip off a formidable group called “The Brethren” in a game of Poker. They meet in Vegas and do eventually beat “The Brethren” through Cooper’s sleight of hand, which goes undetected. But their deceit is given away in Cooper’s childish display of bravado. Cooper, Dorn and others part ways, knowing that they would forever have to stay away from the major gambling venues of Las Vegas and Tahoe. Cooper goes to Santa Maria, near Los Angeles, lying low. But not low enough, since a gang tricks him, using a junkie called Bridget, as a bait. They want to use Cooper. But Cooper, knowing the consequences of retribution against a known swindler, refuses. After he is followed, cornered and threatened, Bridget in a sudden move stabs a syringe full of drug into his neck. Cooper then loses his memory.
Claire lives in San Francisco, working as an assistant in the Public Defender’s Office for Vea, a state lawyer. Vea is also her mentor. She enjoys working for him and is close to his family. She also visits her father at the farm during the weekends, briefly seeing him and then enjoying the countryside on horseback. She bumps into Cooper in Tahoe, when Cooper is already in the shadow of his pursuers. Sensing something wrong, Claire traces Cooper’s residence to a rented lakeside chalet, and discovers him in a bruised, amnesiac state. Cooper is unable to remember past events, although his motor memories are intact. He can drive a car, but can no longer remember anyone from his past. Claire helps him recuperate and tries various cues to reclaim his memory to no effect. They evade Cooper’s pursuers and spends some time with Dorn’s family, after which Claire decides to take Cooper to the farm to meet their father. There is a hidden hope that the old world might stir something in Coop’s dormant memories and bring him back.
The book has three sections, the first two of which mainly traces the lives of Anna, Claire and Cooper. The third, unexpectedly and entirely, devotes itself to the life of Lucien Segura, a French poet and writer whose life and work Anna peruses. One is led through Lucien Segura’s secluded life – his boyhood with his mother, accident with a dog that permanently disfigures him, his unexpressed adoration of Marie Neige, the difficult yet romantic lives of Marie Neige and his reticent husband Roman, Lucien’s marriage and his daughters’ romances. There are glimpses of the first world war where he serves as a recorder of events, and during which he falls ill(diphtheria) and after which he abandons his family. He travels, looking for a home to spend the final years of his life, and befriends the gitans(Astolphe, his wife Aria and their son, the boy Rafael), eventually settling in Dému, by a river. There, through of a series of novels in memory of Marie Neige and Roman that he writes in pseudonym, he attains fame. Eventually, he dies in a boat accident.
The narrative is non-linear, jumping forwards and backwards in time with no boundaries between events, yet with an invisible, self-evident layer of separation between them. One expects the Claire and Cooper reunion to be supplemented by further denouement, perhaps in the last few pages. But that never happens. Another surprising aspect of the work is the free mixing of first-person narrative with third. In fact, Anna, who begins the story in first person, later appears again in third person. The rest of the characters are expounded in third person.
The third part of the book, titled “The house in Demu”, is what elevates the work from a regular, straightforward piece to one with hidden, intricate connections. One could easily perceive two different books – the first in the accounts of Anna, Claire and Cooper and the second in the life of Lucien Segura. Yet they are joined, through events in the past and possibilities of the future. Here, Ondaajte is very successful in knitting together disparate tales segregated in history yet giving the reader a sense of connectedness. Yet the pain of the solitary artist, though present, is not very poignant unlike Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence. The most moving part of the book is when Lucien returns from the war to their home, weak and tired, looking for Marie Neige, and in his delirium imagines her bedridden with illness and cares for her – feeding her and carrying her to the barn as she wishes – only to discover the next morning that there really was no one there, that Marie Neige had died a year ago.
The theme of the book could very aptly be summarized through a quote from itself:
“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.”
The title “Divisadero” is referred to once, almost vaguely, as the name of the street in San Francisco where Claire resides. Spanish for “division”, it seems a relevant choice for witnessing the separations in the lives of the characters.