Saturday, November 22, 2008

On Joseph O'Neill's Netherland

A ringing endorsement of Netherland on the cover of the book says, " ...The story is hard to put down, for its characters are so real and their preoccupations so urgently of the now, that the book has the vividness of breaking news." I am not sure if I agree with this analysis. Most characters in Joseph O'Neill's Netherland are so fantastic and their preoccupations so laid back and meandering that its hard to imagine it as any kind of news.

That however is just a rebuttal of the blurb on the cover and not a criticism of the novel itself. For Netherland is a spectacularly written novel stitched together with sentences that at once evoke awe, nostalgia and admiration for their preciseness and lucidity. It is a complicated yarn which dabbles in philosophical musings on the nature of love, marriage, friendships and cricket and paints a vivid picture of the three cities that its protagonist inhabits - New York, The Hague and London.

Netherland is a first person narrative by the excessively brooding and given to digressions, Hans Van Der Broek, a Dutch investment analyst with an English Lawyer wife and a tragic love for the game of cricket.

"...I was once again confronted by the seemingly irresolvable conflict between, on the one hand , my sense of an innings as a chanceless progression of unorthodox shots - impossible under local conditions - and, on the other hand, the indigenous notion of batting as a gamble of hitting out. There are hornier dilemmas a man can face: but there was more to batting than the issue of scoring runs. There was the issue of self measurement. For what was an innings if not a singular opportunity to face down, by dint of effort and skill and self-mastery, the variable world?"

and elsewhere

"...There was nothing, in principle, to stop me from changing my game, from taking up the cow shots and lofted bashes in which many of my team mates specialized... I could not, more accurately I would not change...I would stubbornly continue to bat as I always had, even if it meant the end of making runs"

Cricket in New York is at best an amusing diversion and the sole preserve of a motley bunch of Asians and Caribbeans. Hans is the only "white" cricketer in the entire group and yet finds himself completely at ease in this diverse group. A bunch of ordinary people attracted by the lure of the great game in a foreign land.

Chuck Ramkissoon, a character who looms over the novel's landscape is, to define him in cricketing terms, a genuine all rounder. He speaks with authority on topics eclectic and exotic. He is a charming rogue - go-getting, mysterious and impulsive. A calypso Huckleberry Finn who has managed to age gracefully. His dream is to bring to America, the unalloyed joys of playing and watching cricket. Hans' and Chuck's is a friendship that is rooted in the reality of mutual expectation. Chuck needs Hans' credible exterior and patient audience for his shady dealings and grandiose pronouncements while Hans looks forward to his meetings with Chuck as a means of getting away from the lonesome reality of his post 9/11 New York life and troubled marriage.

The most striking feature of the novel is the freshness of its prose and its aptness. That itself makes the novel a definite must read. It does help though, that the characters and the narrative are first rate too.

"Some people have no difficulty in identifying with their younger incarnations...I, however, seem given to self-estrangement. I find it hard it muster oneness with those former selves whose accidents and endeavours have shaped who I am now...
I still think, and I fear will always think, of myself as the young man who got a hundred runs in Amstelveen with a flurry of cuts, who took that diving catch at second slip in Rotterdam, who lucked into a hat trick at the Haagse Cricket Club. These and other moments of cricket are scorched in my mind like sexual memories, forever available to me and capable, during those long nights alone in the hotel when I sought refuge from the sorriest of feelings, of keeping me awake as I relived them in bed and powerlessly mourned the mysterious promise they held."