by Niranjan Casie Chitty
by Michael Ondaatje
2007, Paperback, $11.95, ISBN-13: 978-0307279323
A sense of loss and displacement pervades the narrative. Almost every character to whom even a few paragraphs are devoted has left home and is a wanderer, living ‘elsewhere’. The idea of homeless spirits – and minds – is, of course, not new, having received attention from the Book of Genesis to Homer to the migrant crises that unsettle nations today, but still, there is something fresh in Ondaatje’s treatment of it.
For the cast of characters the present has no meaning. They are suspended between the places they have left and a fantasy of a future home. These are the superimpositions of images that color their thoughts, their dreams, and their narratives – the binaries of home and abroad, the past and the future, the real and fantasy.
The opening pages introduce us to an unconventional family: a father and his daughter Anna, the adoptive daughter Claire, and Coop, the boy who was fostered after his parents were murdered. In this initial period, the girls are comfortable, and are scanning the future, eagerly waiting for what is to come. Coop and Anna become lovers, in secret. Not even Clair – Anna’s confidante in everything – knows. Then a violent rupture occurs destroying Anna’s youthful illusions, leaving only a yearning for the past.
When their father discovers the lovers, naked, in each other’s arms, he launches a frenzied assault on Coop. In the ensuing chaos Anna and Coop are separated, leave home, and lose contact permanently. With this, for them, the present and the future become entangled in an inescapable past.
What follows provides a fascinating study of the notions of home, nostalgia and exile. Anna is at once homesick and sick of home and never returns. Nostalgic reflection is difficult: “Even now she cannot enter that afternoon’s episode with safety. A wall of black light holds her away from it.” She is gripped by a fear of looking back: so deep is the loss that she cannot consciously engage with it. Nevertheless, there is always a trace of the past, attempting numerous forays into her barricaded consciousness, appearing in faces and houses that seem familiar, or in the shape of a horse, or in the aroma of food or in the fragrance of a flower. Anything could potentially be a messenger of the past.
Unconsciously, though, she finds an alternate pathway of return, which is pointed to in the sentence, “There are times she needs to hide in a stranger’s landscape, so that she can look back at the tumult of her youth, to the still-undiminished violence of her bloodied naked self between her father and Coop, the moment of violence that deformed her, all of them.” She returns not in life but through her work. She has taken to researching the life of the French poet Lucien Segura who on many occasions throughout his life experienced departures and exile. She is able to enter her own experience vicariously, through the prism of “a stranger’s landscape”. She is able to recreate the idea of home, reenact and reinterpret the incomprehensible moment that caused her departure and also to explore the condition of exile through her scholarship.
It is not just the poet’s life that is strewn with experiences of displacement and dislocation but also those he comes in contact with. They too are a rich resource for Anna, making available multiple avenues of psychic return in the guise of these characters. This endeavor is, ultimately, a mediated exploration of her own life, an attempt at painful biography. The disguises are against herself, so she might return without knowing it and without re-encountering the original violence and heartbreak. Though the past is a preoccupation and there is even an element of obsession, she is clearly not seeking a pure reconstruction. She attempts a construction that loosely resembles her own past but not so closely that she recognizes it.
Coop, when he leaves, takes to gambling. He is ‘adopted’ by a group of poker players. They are a source of shelter, company, and provide an education in the art of playing poker. He becomes as accomplished as they.
The group dwells in the margins, is reclusive, and is fascinating for their milieu of equality, freedom, fraternity and democracy. Coop, it seems, has found his idyll. And yet, there is a sense of fragility, the draw of another current, and a sense that he will obliterate the edifice in a moment.
He initiates a plan both intricate and elaborate to dupe a notorious team known as the Brethren. The others are not persuaded but indulge him because they are fond of him. The con succeeds but he must flee the wrath of the Brethren. It seems inconceivable that he would imperil for a second time a haven offered him.
It becomes evident – counterintuitively – that he is seeking not a home but a series of exiles. A clue, perhaps, is in the few sentences toward the beginning of the novel that mention his childhood experience of witnessing the murder of his parents. On this reading, the notion of home offers him little comfort. Also, his temperament and sensibility shaped this way impel him to reenact – serially – that moment of rupture, to come to terms with it. In its wake he leaves a trail of destruction – Anna will not see her father again and he, in turn, is devastated. Claire is constantly haunted by the fragmentation of the family. His friends, the card players, are deeply saddened by his departure.
Claire and Coop meet accidentally at a diner. He is in trouble again; this time the cause is his girlfriend – a recovering addict. A few days later thugs assault him and he suffers permanent memory loss. Ironically, the last thing he remembers as he slips into unconsciousness is a moment of the last afternoon spent with Anna.
Home for all the wanderers in the narrative – it seems – is a place in their minds that affords them peace – including the poet Lucien Segura. But if you cannot find that stillness within you through love, or work, or art, there is nowhere to go. If Coop sought estrangement as a bulwark against the past, amnesia is the ideal cure. The pain of remembrance followed by the tranquility of forgetting.
AEssayist Niranjan Casie Chitty lives in Sri Lanka. An extract of his first novel, which is currently in progress, was shortlisted for the Charles Pick South East Asian Fellowship (offered by the University of East Anglia) and was among the shortlist for finalists at the William Faulkner-William Wisdom competition (2012) in the Novel in Progress category. His work has been published in literary journals such as Compulsive Reader and Empty mirror and in journals and newspapers in Sri Lanka.