Our legends and dreamers

Times Staff Writer

THE poet and novelist Michael Ondaatje -- born in Sri Lanka, reared in England, based in Toronto -- seems as unstuck in time, as well as space, as any contemporary writer. His books are filled with period detail and are set all over the place, and sometimes only obliquely overlap with his biography. “In the Skin of a Lion” largely unfurls in Toronto in the 1920s, “Anil’s Ghost” in contemporary Sri Lanka, “Coming Through Slaughter” in New Orleans during the birth of jazz and his most famous novel, “The English Patient,” in an Italian villa and the Sahara Desert at the tail end of World War II.

A nonlinear narrative style often called “cubist” or “collage” that fragments both point of view and narrative line makes it even harder to place him. Ondaatje has said he prefers cinematic editing -- he’s written a book on the Oscar-winning film and sound editor Walter Murch -- over the orthodox one-thing-after-the-other of the conventional novel. His books often resemble the storyteller he describes in “The English Patient,” who told tales that “slip from level to level like a hawk.”

Ondaatje’s new novel, “Divisadero,” takes place in California and France, both in the present and the past, with elaborate shiftings and echoings of identities. The California sections include pastoral scenes on a Petaluma farm in the 1970s, where a family comes together and is then torn apart by sex and violence, sequences in yuppie San Francisco, a parallel universe of card sharks in and around Lake Tahoe’s casinos, and a scene set in a memorable steakhouse in Santa Maria.

He fills these sections with rich descriptions of flora and fauna, as well as regional history and references to everyone from naturalist John Muir to frontiersman Kit Carson. Tales of the Gold Rush and its demented dreamers, especially, seem to circle in the background.


The French sections include one character meeting a gypsy guitarist in a forest clearing, and the recounting of the life of an imaginary French poet in Gascony.

Besides a few fragmented glimpses -- a sequence of “Anil’s Ghost” takes place in Borrego Springs, and “I think I wrote one poem about a dog in San Francisco,” he said, “many years ago” -- this is the writer’s first sustained meditation on the Golden State.

Ondaatje, 63, spoke from his office in Toronto.

What drew you to set your novel in California?

It was partly because I was there for a while: I was asked to teach at Stanford as a writer-in-residence, about five years ago. And I decided to live up north of San Francisco and drive down once a week. We lived up in the San Anselmo/Petaluma area, and we kind of fell in love with that region; it’s really stunning. Especially near Petaluma, that landscape feels so separate from the rest of the world. I had a friend who had a farm there, and she got me a place to work during the day on my book.

In Toronto, my hometown, it’s hard to work without any interruptions. But this meant I could work full time, and I was working in a place where a cellphone couldn’t reach me and e-mail couldn’t meet me, so I got a few extra hours a day.

The landscape kind of grew and became the starting point of the book. I find that landscape incredible, so different.... We were there during February, March, April, when it was so green.... I’ve always had a love of American culture, even living in Canada: jazz, westerns and so forth. I’ve always been drawn to San Francisco and Berkeley: I’ve come down and read there in the past. I see [poet] Robert Hass, Joyce Jenkins who runs Poetry Flash, David Thomson, the film critic.

The other person who was important was Walter Murch, the film editor, who lives outside San Francisco. He did the sound and picture editing for “A Touch of Evil,” some of the sound for the “Godfather” movies, and is an icon in some ways.


It wasn’t a symbolic act to set it in California. Though certainly I was tapping into some of that stuff with the remnants of the Gold Rush. But also I was there at the beginning of the [second] Gulf War, you were surrounded by protests, and when we drove back through the country we drove through much more conservative states, and you were aware you’d been in a wonderful bubble of protests to the war, which the rest of the country didn’t catch up to for quite a while.

Driving across the country, the headline on all the TV shows was “Liberation Iraq.” While as soon as you got into Canada it was “Invasion Iraq.”

The Petaluma sections seem to take place in their own world, which could exist in any century.

It’s sort of a ballad form, where anything could happen out of the blue; it could be 14th century, it could be 20th century.


I think this book, compared to my other books, is much closer to the earth, and to nature. The sections in France equally so. In part because everyone’s always on horseback or walking, there’s a sense of a slower speed, of becoming aware of certain plants, certain little snakes, a willow, and so forth. I wasn’t conscious of that, but there was a slowing down for the sake of descriptions. The only place that doesn’t happen is Lake Tahoe, where the gambling moves at a much faster speed.

Some of the most striking portraits in the books are of a steakhouse where one character eats every night and a subculture of gamblers.

I’d been told about Jocko’s Steakhouse; it’s quite an amazing place. That’s why I went to Santa Maria: I’d been driving with a friend to L.A. and we stopped there. That’s a pretty accurate portrait of Jocko’s in the book: It’s quite a wonderful and slightly surreal place. It’s this wonderful steakhouse, five of these huge, huge barbecues -- as I say in the book it’s like this swimming pool of fire. It looks like a medieval scene, with these guys with tongs moving the steaks around, and inside it’s got bad lighting and brown wooden walls. The gamblers aren’t interested in decor.

The gamblers I met were interesting: They were not the Hollywood version of gamblers who bet everything on one game -- and disaster followed, or total joy. It was like a very realistic, almost suburban way of life: They’d chosen that way of life because they liked it and they were comfortable in their talent. Their hours were strange, but they were a pretty sane gang, and quite funny too. I had a good time with them.


I had a contact, and went there and met three or four, then others, and hung out with them for a few days and listened to what their lives were like. The game was something I already had in my mind, but I wanted the lifestyle, really ... what they did when they woke up at noon.

This was mostly in Tahoe; Vegas really didn’t interest me, though I did go there at one point. Vegas is like total, 100% fiction, a false front. There’s very little human life of a natural kind there. My friend David Thomson said, “Vegas is the end of the world, but thinks it’s the future.”