The Many Layers of Michael Ondaatje's 'Divisadero' The celebrated author of The English Patient weaves a tale of intersecting lives that takes readers from 1970s California to pre-World War I France in his fifth novel, Divisadero.

The Many Layers of Michael Ondaatje's 'Divisadero'

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

Shortly before Scott Simon went on paternity leave, he interviewed novelist Michael Ondaatje about his new novel "Divisidero". Michael Ondaatje, of course, is probably best known for the "The English Patient" and his new novel has been eagerly awaited.

Here's Scott's interview.

SCOTT SIMON: The storylines in a Michael Ondaatje novel don't tie things together. So much as they allow character to sling shot in and out of some of the same emotional territory.

His new novel seems to be two distinct stories, about a couple of California sisters, Anna, Claire, and Coop, the young man who works their farm. The active unforeseen violence that drives them apart, an unfathomable fortune that gives them each a foot back in each other's lives. And it's the story of Anna going off to France to inhabit the life of a writer of an earlier time.

Michael Ondaatje joins us in our studio. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. MICHAEL ONDAATJE (Author, "Divisidero"): Thank you.

SIMON: What makes this novel as opposed to two novellas that you cover?

Mr. ONDAATJE: Well, I think it's a story where each half reflects the other in some way and hopefully, deepens it. You know, it's a - two novellas are something that are self-sufficient, and in a way the story of Anna and Claire, and Coop, and their - what happens to them as young people is in a way unfinished. And the only way I thought I could finish it was to kind of imagine another story, partly, because that story is told in the consciousness of Anna, I think.

And as a result, everything that she doesn't say, everything that she feels, everything that has been unsaid about that relationship and unfinished - about the relationship with Coop and her sister, and her father as well, gets finish in a kind of another story.

So, it's kind of - it is an odd structure, I'm not - forgive me for that, but you know, it just seemed to me that an unnatural way, you know, I don't think our lives are finished. Our stories are - with our own lives are not finished, you know. Even at mid-career or mid-life, you know, you think of all the things you lost and still looking are never finished. So, one of the things I'm interested in this is how one finishes a stories, and one of the ways we finish stories of our own lives is through art.

SIMON: Did this begin as something you saw, something was in your mind, something you saw from the road, something in a distance?

Mr. ONDAATJE: Well, I - what have happened was I was teaching at Stanford for one semester, and I was living up in northern California, north of San Francisco, and a friend had a farm where I could go and work out during the day, and - on my writing, and…

SIMON: (unintelligible) milking the cows or something really useful. Right - yeah.

Mr. ONDAATJE: (unintelligible) right - yeah. And I never been to this landscape or on Petaluma before, and it was wonderful, and I was in awe of its landscape. And also, you know, I lived in a farm when I was a kid and all those stuff. So - then the story really began with these three young people who are not fully related by blood but they are - they are called nuclear family in an odd way.

SIMON: I want to give people early on an idea of what has been referred to as your sublime and luminous prose. If you could read a section for us.

Mr. ONDAATJE: This is quite early in the book and this first part is narrated by Anna, who is in fact the real daughter of the father, the other daughter has been brought into the family.

(Reading) Now and then, our father embraced us as any father would. This happened only if you are able to catch in that no man's land between tiredness and sleep when he seemed wayward to himself. I joined him at the old covered sofa and I would lie like a slim dog in his arms, imitating his state of weariness, too much sun, perhaps, or too hard a day's work. Claire would also be there sometimes if she does not want to be left out or if there was a storm. But I simply wished to have my face against his checkered shirt and pretend to be asleep as if inhaling the flesh on adult was a sin and also a glory, a right, in any case.

I would watch the flicker under his eyelid that tremble within that covering skin that signaled his tiredness, as if you were being tugged in mid-river by a rope to some other place. And then I, too, would sleep, descending into the lair that was closest to him. A father who allows you that should protect you all of your days, I think.

SIMON: And without giving away any plot points, that feeling is partially at the heart of the act of violence that surprises really all four of the people, to get caught up in it.

Mr. ONDAATJE: Yes. Yeah, and you know, he doesn't - that is something at the level of huge love that turned into what you call anger between Anna and her father. I think that kind of - even though his presence is not actively there on all the pages, he's there suddenly only in memory.

SIMON: I have to tell you, my favorite sections of this book involved that part of Coop's life. After the act of violence, he runs away from the farm, and he becomes a cardsharp, although, perhaps not as sharp as he thinks he is, but accomplished, a good player. How much do you know about gambling and poker? Did you research?

Mr. ONDAATJE: I do play poker but I'm not a good poker player. But I did go to Lake Tahoe two or three times when I was writing the book, and I met a group of card players and they were great people. They were funny and they were very witty. And I think went to see how they lived their lives and their strange humor and their knowledge of cards, which was remarkable, not just in real life but in fiction. And there's a thing in the book where they are talking about "The Cincinnati Kid" and this one cop has said, yeah.

SIMON: Is the movie with Edward G. Robinson and Karl Malden.

Mr. ONDAATJE: That's right. Yeah. And Steve McQueen, I think.


Mr. ONDAATJE: And anyway, then say, well, that last game he was playing, I think he had aces and 10s or something like that. And I went and got the movie out again and looked at this, and of course, it was aces and 10. So these guys could remember the hand in a movie that they'd seen 25 years ago, and that was such a revealing thing about the focus.

SIMON: It has been said of your novels that they have a sense of places, the plural, as this book is from California, Northern California and the south of France. You are Sri Lankan-born, British-educated, residing in Canada. Does this promote the kind of the polyglot geography that's in your books?

Mr. ONDAATJE: Yeah, I mean, I think growing up in, say, three basic places, mostly in Canada now, you're not locked into one specific location. And I sort of envy that one distinct location, you know, what Faulkner did and therefore Marquez does and what Alex Monroe, you know, they had their own, what do you call that one, on postage stamp, you know, the place, and they can write the hell out of that place, you know. In fact, just a few years ago, I went to Oxford, Mississippi, because I loved Faulkner, and it's nothing like, nothing like (unintelligible).

SIMON: Could have been a few changes, had it?

Mr. ONDAATJE: No, but even so - no, there's one river and one shack…

SIMON: Starbucks has come in for sure.

Mr. ONDAATJE: No, there's nothing, I mean, it's a completely invented(ph) landscape, (unintelligible) actually.

SIMON: You were an accomplished poet as well as novelist. Is there a clear line between the two in your mind?

Mr. ONDAATJE: There is, you know, and I think the only problem with that saying is that people have an image of poets with this sort of periphery(ph), kind of, you know, over written stuff there. Whereas, for me, a poet is the most suggestive and laconic, every word counts. So a poem also is more suggestive than the average novel, you know. You write three quarters of the story and end up the reader provides the last quarter, you know. And - so I guess, my novels have that quality as well, you know, that there are there are kind of gaps where the connections are to be made by the reader.

SIMON: Michael Ondaatje, thank you very much.

Mr. ONDAATJE: Thank you.

SIMON: His new novel is "Divisadero".

YDSTIE: To read an excerpt about the California family featured in the "Divisadero", go to

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