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Jan 8, 2012

Bird Flight: Michael Ondaatje

Early in the English Patient, Michael Ondaatje describes how a character likes to narrate stories: "There are stories the man recites quietly into the room which slip from level to level like a hawk." This is also Ondaatje's own literary secret. Over the years, his material has been almost absurdly diverse — he's written about Billy the Kid, jazz musician Buddy Bolden, his own family's history, contemporary Sri Lanka — but his idea of how to structure a book has been reasonably consistent: start a story that whets the reader's appetite with exquisite metaphors and sharp observations of psychology and society, then abruptly slip into another story, which may involve the same character or may introduce new ones. He will return later to the stories he has apparently abandoned. Or he may not. Yet the reader who makes it to the end will be convinced, somehow, that there's a profound, even mystical, connection between the broken stories — that they are part of the same hawk's flight. This is a tremendously difficult trick to pull off, and part of the thrill of a new Ondaatje novel lies in seeing if he has managed it once again.

Divisadero, his latest book, starts as the story of Anna and Claire, two sisters growing up on a ranch in California with their father and an orphaned boy named Coop. The sisters later develop an almost pathological competitiveness and Claire loses out: Anna gets Coop. Then the father discovers Coop sleeping with Anna, and almost kills him. The characters split up, and so does the novel. One narrative strand follows the boy after he leaves the ranch. Longtime Ondaatje fans know they're in for a treat when Coop turns into a gambler. Ondaatje has a talent for mixing highbrow writing with lowbrow material, for serving caviar as street food; references to Kipling and Matisse sit alongside descriptions of hustlers, hookers and high rollers. Coop learns from a gambler who lives in the desert in an abandoned plane, pulls off a fabulous score, has a romance with a duplicitous drug addict, and gets beaten up. This is when he meets Claire. Delirious from his beating, he mistakes her for Anna. It is a kind of wish fulfillment for Claire; she takes him back to meet her father and force a reconciliation. And now, when we are most curious about these characters, the hawk slips.
We find ourselves in France. Anna, estranged from her family, has come here to research the life of a dead writer named Lucien Segura. She moves into the writer's house, takes long country walks, and falls for a man with a guitar. Then we slip again — this time into Segura's life. We hear about what made him a writer; how he dealt with the sexual tussles between his two daughters; about his experiences in World War I. And now the hawk has ended its flight.

Admirers of Ondaatje's spare, yet poetical prose will find much to enjoy. Describing two people who make love robustly in a grounded plane, he writes: "Their sex takes place in the late afternoons, and shortly afterwards they emerge from the Airstream like humbled dormice." Ondaatje has a gift for capturing music and landscape in words, and there are gorgeous descriptions of strumming guitars, running horses and swooping hawks. But the second part of the book is a letdown; the descriptions in France are often too contrived, too literary. We want less about Segura's art, more about Coop and his crooked card games. And then there's the question of whether the book coheres. In addition to the echoes of repeating themes, characters are linked by shared sentiments of hurt, dispossession and a love of solitude. But for once, the hawk master has failed at his game: for all the delight of the slips and falls, it doesn't all add up to one story.

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