David opens the other room and finds the small space bathing in sheets of sunlight. Standing beneath the doorpost, he watches the drapes billow lightly from a blistering breeze. He is paused, as though in a moment of memory, and it takes a while before he enters and lifts the paperback lying on the shelf.
He opens the volume, runs his digits across a page, and breathes it in while the apricot glow by the window burns his cheek. It’s become a habit to keep returning to the book. The thick paper keeps its sweet, earthy scent. And he knows the scent won’t fade for years, even as the leaves turn rustic gold. He has another book made of the same paper, with words written by the same writer—its pages yellowed in all the years it’s been laid on beds and tables, moved in and out of shelves, grasped and touched and felt. It was a gift from a friend. Claire—someone in the book is also called Claire.
David reads a page and remembers what brought him to the room.
* * *
It was an uninvited cry interrupting the stillness of a burning afternoon. A wailing beggar had broken the sacred sloth of siesta and David laid awake to his own hunger. More light, he noticed, was penetrating the curtains and the air conditioner was fighting a battle it has already lost. His skin imagined beads of sweat dripping from his chest.
He willed his toes to the kitchen and put butter onto bread while his coffee brewed in a small, blue press. There was a tremor in his hand as he poured the black liquid, and it told him he’ll need more sugar in his cup. Later he thought that there was too much milk. He sat alone, satiating his need until a different craving entered his thoughts.
* * *
“Only the re-reading counts,” the page quotes Nabokov. Some pages David has read far more than once. He’s listened to a recorded reading of Divisadero through many tired evenings, and even now it’s still for him a point of pleasure to hear Hope Davis voice out the printed letters. Melodic melancholy. He can perhaps recite pieces as if straight from the recording, and yet when asked to tell its story David always finds himself without an answer. How can he, he asks, when the story presents itself not as a single tale but as a stream of episodes which at almost every scene sweeps like clean, gentle gusts after hours of violent rain. And it works like memory, feels like memory—like the way we remember not a continuous narrative but selected fragments of an experience. “It’s like a villanelle . . . the way the villanelle’s form refuses to move forward in linear development, circling instead at those familiar moments of emotion.”
David reviews the mosaic of characters, creatures separated by time and distance but linked together like echoes of each other’s pasts. He thinks about the father who lost his wife, the daughter borne of the dying mother, the daughter of another corpse taken to fill the loss, and the boy delivered into the family by a tragedy only to be separated by another act of violence. And then in another time, another continent, there is the other orphan, the daughters he would love, the woman that would not be his, and the old man he would be. And then, another boy. We are all orphans of history, abandoned children of our forgotten selves.
“For we live with those retrievals from childhood that coalesce and echo throughout our lives, the way shattered pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope reappear in new forms and are songlike in their refrains and rhymes.” Michael Ondaatje could’ve been describing his own writing. David has read that novelists start out as poets but later learn that they don’t have the patience to obsess on every word. But in Ondaatje’s novels, he finds a poet who shifts to a longer form without losing his practiced precision and economy with language. This poet of prose brings with him the musical breaks and cadence of his verses.
And so it isn’t those lost, languid souls that pulls David back to the book again, but the words—words with the terse intensity of a photograph. On the cover of his copy of Divisadero are faces of two women, eyes cropped out of the picture as if damsels blindfolded by their captors, or heroines blinded by affection. It’s the two sisters, he is sure, but as to which pair David remains uncertain.
* * *
He retreats to the relative comfort of the colder room. On the bed lies the other book and he takes it down with him to the floor—its pages yellowed in all the years it’s been laid on beds and tables, moved in and out of shelves, grasped and touched and felt. The English Patient. He opens it and finds another David in the page.
“We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell.”
Divisadero is Michael Ondaatje’s fifth novel. He is better known for this third novel, The English Patient, which was adapted into a film by Anthony Minghella and won nine Academy Awards in 1997.