A Ball of String


Michael Ondaatje

Vintage House International, 2007


            Divisadero is a book about men searching for father-figures.  At first that’s not obvious.  What could possibly connect Lucien Segura, elusive early 20th century French poet and novelist, with Cooper, the orphaned farmhand-turned-cardsharp, in the first decade of the 21st?  The narrative thread that binds these two characters is as strong and fine as a strand of spiderweb, visible only when the sun glints on it.

            The story begins with Anna and Claire, growing up on a farm in northern California, but is quick to introduce Cooper.  His parents were brutally murdered, and a neighboring dairy-farming couple took him in.  A few years later, the wife of that couple died in childbirth.  The husband brought home his half-orphaned newborn daughter, Anna, and another orphaned baby named Claire, because the hospital at which his wife died “owed him something, after all.”

            Cooper or “Coop” is four years older than the girls. He helps out around the farm, but he is restless, going off to mine for gold at the “north fork of the Russian River,” or having other adventures.  The girls, Anna and Claire, are creatures of words, while Coop and their father are nearly silent.

            When the girls reach their teens Anna embarks on a passionate affair with him.  Predictably, her father discovers them, and beats Coop savagely, nearly as savagely, the reader supposes, as the murderous farmhand beat Coop’s parents.  Anna lashes out at her father physically to save Coop, and the entire makeshift family flies apart.

            The narrative follows Coop as he takes up with a foursome of professional gamblers in North Lake Tahoe. After a spectacular score, he leaves Nevada and moves to southern California, but he is lured back up north by Heidi, the bait in a honey-trap.

            For a while the books follows the voice of Anna.  Twenty years after she fled from her father, Anna is an established scholar, in France researching the mysterious writer-poet Lucien Segura.  Anna has changed her name and left her history behind. She has an apartment on Divisadero Street in San Francisco, and muses on the meaning of divisadero—a divider, or perhaps someone who practices divination.  The reader knows this second definition is false.  Every character in this story is torn, cut or otherwise sundered from lineage, from continuity, from family.

            Spider-silk connections exist in names and images.  After Anna’s father beats Coop, Coop realizes that he has “a dead eye.”  Lucien loses the sight in one eye in a bizarre incident with a dog.  Anna’s mother, who died in childbirth, tells an academic interviewer that thistles are the biggest problem in dairy farming.  Marie-Neige, Lucien’s neighbor and lover, has a miscarriage in a ditch, and later only remembers the thistle that grew there. Names have alliteration—Rafael, Roman—and resonance, such as Lucien with Claire.

            Two characters in the book are not named; Anna’s father, and Segura’s wife.  This is not an oversight or laziness.  To name something is to know it.  These characters are unknown and unknowable to the other characters around them, and this opacity makes them unpredictable and dangerous.

            Back in Nevada, Claire reconnects with Cooper.  After he is beaten again, in a deal gone wrong, she helps him heal and then brings him home to the Sonoma County farm and her taciturn father.

            Rafael, Anna’s lover, tells the story of meeting the writer Segura when Rafael was a small boy.  The story shifts again, to become Lucien’s, describing his battle with cholera during World War I, his fascination with his neighbor, Roman and Roman’s wife, Marie-Niege. Roman, raised in “the etiquette of self-defense” is sent to prison after beating a man who gazes too long at Marie-Neige.

            After Roman is released and conscripted, and Marie-Neige dies of fever, Ondaatje engages in a passage of pure metafiction as he describes Lucien’s penning of a series of adventure novels.  The hero is named Roman, but there is always a girl, a country maid or plucky street gamine, who helps the hero or other characters in the book by spying, delivering secret messages or, once, tellingly, “guiding a blind father out of the city.” 

            Ariadne gave Theseus a ball of string to help him navigate the minotaur’s deadly labyrinth. Theseus defeated the monster and left Crete, taking Ariadne with him.  Later, though, he saw a side her he didn’t like, a raw, primal side, and so he abandoned her.

            It is no “coincidence” that Claire runs into Coop in Lake Tahoe, just as it is no “coincidence” that Anna, out for a walk around her borrowed chateau, happens to meet a man who, as a boy, knew Lucien Segura.  Anna and Claire are not reacting to synchronistic events.  They are serving their literary purpose.  They are not characters as such, not even as much as the bit-player Heidi is a character, but more like finely crafted, highly decorated tools, designed to provide connections, as do the images, the names, and the wounded eyes.


            Ondaatje is careless of coincidence and cavalier about detail.  This is maddening in the first third of the book, the section set in northern California.  It’s hard for a reader to swallow that a “field hospital on the outskirts of Santa Rosa” would, in the early 1960s, hand a bereaved husband and sole parent of a newborn, a man with no female relatives, a second orphaned baby to care for by himself. Geographical details are confused or just plain wrong, which disorients a reader who knows the area.  These should be insurmountable obstacles to engaging with the book, but somehow they are not.  The intensity of Ondaatje’s prose, the concentration of his images– as when he observes Heidi’s blond hair “browning” under the spray of water from a shower, as when the hippie-gambler Dorn breaks his twenty-year-old puka shell necklace and the tiny seed-like discs bounce on the floor– forces us to slow down, to enter the maze of conjoined dreams that is Ondaatje’s creation.  Like most dreams, the book is not subject to logic.  Thus it is no surprise that Claire meets Cooper in Lake Tahoe and brings him home.  It is Anna’s task that is the harder.  She manages to connect fatherless, half-blind Lucien, across eighty years, an ocean and a continent, to fatherless, maybe-half-blind Cooper.  She, nameless, all but faceless, nearly without a voice, is the strand of spiderweb that binds these two men, and she is visible only when touched by an oblique ray of the sun.


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