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June 6-12, 2007

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Balzac Around Every Bend

Sonoma County is the start of Michael Ondaatje's brilliant new novel

By Jonah Raskin


Half-way through Michael Ondaatje's new novel, Divisadero (Knopf; $25), Claire, a Sonoma County-born and bred young woman, who seems to speak for the author himself, explains that "divisadero" comes from the Spanish word for "division." It's the name of a street in San Francisco, she adds, that once divided the city from the fields of the Presidio. Or it might derive from the word divisar, meaning "to gaze at something from a distance."

Claire's words provide a key that helps unlock a novel that brings the far away up close and untangles the knotted ways that fathers, daughters and their lovers are inextricably connected, and at the same time divided from one another--and divided from themselves. Catastrophe stalks the characters in Divisadero: they're blinded, beaten, addicted, persecuted. In the background, wanton death rages, as it does in the author's previous books, including Coming Through Slaughter and The English Patient, in which World War II provides a backdrop to a story of love and betrayal that won the coveted Booker Prize and was also made into a Hollywood movie that eliminated the ambiguities and complexities of the novel. Ondaatje appears June 15 at Book Passage.

Ondaatje's characters--thieves, drug addicts, gamblers, dreamers and craftsmen--are far from angelic, and the world he explores, in all its intricate workings, is a long way from heaven, but he writes like an angel, with a heavenly kind of prose that often feels like poetry. On every page, there are passages that electrify, entertain and beg to be reread. Divisadero presents a world of dark beauty, and it seems entirely fitting that two of the characters read aloud from Alexandre Dumas's 1850 novel The Black Tulip and that they cultivate black tulips, too.

Perhaps because he was born in Sri Lanka of Ceylonese and Dutch ancestors--a haunting story he tells lyrically in Running in the Family--and then raised in England before he settled in Canada, Ondaatje knows how to move his characters gracefully around the world. The novel begins in rural Sonoma County, where "it was as if there were a novel by Balzac round every bend." Then it turns into a Balzacan novel in the South of France. The characters fan out, return to where they started out, and the novel itself comes full circle, healing the wounded. "Sometimes we enter art to hide within it," one of the characters observes, wisely. "It is where we go to save ourselves." In the artful pages of Ondaatje's novel , readers might lose themselves and save themselves, too.

Michael Ondaatje reads from and discusses Divisadero at Book Passage on Friday, June 15. 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. 7pm. Free. 415.927.0960.


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