I absolutely love GoodReads as a social networking site for book nerds, but their formatting for reviews is supa ugly. So, despite my all out war against cross-posting and duplicate content, here is my review of Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero, maybe the best book I’ve read all year. You can see other books I’ve read, am reading, and plan to read on my GoodReads profile.

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There is not much I can write about Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero without echoing what all the other reviewers have already written: Ondaatje is a craftsman. His writing reveals decades of self-scrutiny, of each year wanting to say more with fewer words.

Divisadero is about love and the loss thereof. Love falls victim to the jealous wrath of a protective father, to drug addiction, to the minor details of our daily lives, and the greater mystery of the entropy of desire:

Lucien and his future wife left the curtained parlour and walked arm in arm for an hour or two along a road banked with poppies and into a marriage that created two daughters. There would be years of compatibility and then bitterness, and who knew when that line was traversed, on what night, at what hour. Over what betrayal. They slipped over this as over a faint rise in the road, like a small vessel crossing the equator unaware, so that in fact their whole universe was now upside down.

Much of the novel takes place in the parts of California that most Californians don’t visit: Petaluma, Grass Valley, Santa Maria, Lake Tahoe. I have strong memories of all four places and Ondaatje’s descriptions are not only apt; they also manage to capture the aesthetic of the ‘other California’, far from the bleached hair and blonde sand of the southern coast and the cosmopolitanism of the Bay Area. I can only assume that his descriptions of provincial France are equally percipient.

There is also, it turns out, a link between this novel and Brazil. On the acknowledgements page of the book facing the back cover, Ondaajte writes:

The song ‘Um Favor’ (partially described on page 73) by Lupicinio Rodrigues in essence began this book.

Here is that partial description from page 73:

All of 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.

He told her there was a song he no longer performed that had to do with all of that. It was about a woman who had risen from their bed in the middle of the night and left him. He would hear evidence of her in villages in the north, bust she would be gone by the time the rumour of her presence reached him. A song of endless searching, sung by this man who until then had seldom revealed himself. His tough fingers would tug the heart out of his guitar. He’d sing this song to those who had grown up with his music over the years, who were familiar with his skill at avoiding the limelight. He knew his reputation for shyness and guile, but now he conceded his scarred self to his friends. ‘If any of you on your journeys see her – shout to me, whistle …’ he sang, and it became a habit for audiences to shout and whistle in response to those lines. There was nowhere for him to hide in such a song that had all of its doors and windows open, so that he could walk out of it artlessly, the antiphonal responses blending with him as though he were no longer on the stage.

And a related quote from Divisadero, originally muttered by Nietzche:

We have art so that we shall not be destroyed by the truth.

For your listening pleasure, here is Lupicinio Rodrigues’ ‘Um Favor’. (Right click, save as).

[podcast]http://el-oso.net/mp3/05%20Um%20Favor.mp3[/podcast]

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