Fourth Estate Dh100
On its destined march to this year's Man Booker prize, Joseph O'Neill's Netherland has generated the sort of deep interest that most novels only dream about. The book's admirers have - as professional admirers are prone to do - elevated its publication to an epochal event. It is supposedly the first real "post-September 11 novel"; it is, thanks to its recasting of the American dream, a "21st century Great Gatsby"; its Irish author has exploded the very contours of the "American novel" by anchoring it in both New York and London, with hinterlands in the Caribbean and the Netherlands. Measuring the novel's import almost seems to be a job for historians and cartographers, not just dishevelled critics.
Netherland actually deserves the praise. Its quiet tale of how Hans van der Broek, a Dutch investment banker living in New York, grapples with the temporary break-up of his marriage in the wake of the September 11 attacks is remarkable for its poise and wisdom. But all the ovations risk overshadowing the novel's smaller and more miraculous achievement: its refreshing portrayal of New York, one of the world's most artistically documented cities. O'Neill gives us a striking new vision of the city, one informed by the most unfamiliar of Big Apple institutions: cricket.
After his wife leaves him and returns to her native London, Hans seeks solace in the semi-secret world of organised New York cricket. His immersion in this scene is facilitated by fellow immigrant Chuck Ramkissoon, one of the fullest and most memorable characters in recent fiction. Many have likened him to F Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby, another failed dreamer. Chuck also recalls Melquiades, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, and like Marquez's gypsy storyteller, he overflows with accumulated lore and geography.
Hans follows Chuck to the fringes of New York: to far-flung Staten Island, East Brooklyn and Queens, where a mix of South Asian and West Indian immigrants play in lively amateur cricket leagues. Like the neighborhoods in which it is played, their cricket is rougher and more bludgeoning than its conventional counterpart. American cricket - "bush cricket" as Chuck calls it - "inflicts an injury that is aesthetic as much as anything". But it remains cricket, a game O'Neill clearly loves, and has referred to as his "athletic mother-tongue". Few writers have so gracefully described the sport. Hans envisions an ideal lawn "where the white-clad ring of infielders, swanning figures on the vast oval, again and again converge in unison toward the batsman and again and again scatter back to their starting points, a repetition of pulmonary rhythm, as if the field breathed through its luminous visitors."
Chuck dreams of making cricket a big-time sport in America, and plans to start by building a proper cricket ground at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. For Chuck, establishing cricket in New York, and by extension America, is not just a sporting quest, but a moral mission. "All people, Americans, whoever, are at their most civilised when they're playing cricket," he expounds. "Cricket is instructive, Hans. It has a moral angle [...] With the New York Cricket Club, we could start a whole new chapter in US history."
I admit to being particularly amenable to this vision of New York illuminated by cricket. I am one of that rare breed of New Yorkers who grew up with cricket, in some form or the other, all around me. I woke up every morning to the orchestral sounds of the BBC on my father's transistor radio while he waited for the latest cricket results. My school - with its aspiring New York worldliness - kept a stock of cricket bats. During the Cricket World Cup, lines of parked yellow taxis would stretch along Lexington Avenue in Little India, and I'd join throngs of tea-drinking Indians and Pakistanis in the neighbourhood's restaurants as they stayed up through the night to support their national teams. And I played cricket, often in a bonsai version with just my father and twin brother, but also fuller games with other young New Yorkers (mostly South Asians) in the roller-hockey lots and basketball courts that populated our strangely displaced youth.
Unlike Hans, I rarely ventured to the uncharted wilds of the outer boroughs. I was a young Manhattanite, too solipsistic for such adventures. But our cricket was no less rough-and-tumble than his, no less modified by the city in which it was somehow played. One summer, we met every day in an asphalt-paved park ringed by high mesh wire fences. Our "boundaries" were made of rusting chain, not gentle rope. In place of traditional stumps, we used garbage cans. We played with "tape balls", tennis balls wrapped in tape to simulate the heft and bounce of real cricket balls. Whenever a ball was hit out of the park, it was pulverised by traffic on the implacable FDR Drive.
Even in New York, a city of foreigners, there is something helplessly foreign about the spectacle of cricket. We were usually too engrossed in our helter-skelter proceedings to pay much attention to the world beyond the chain fence. But during pauses in the game, I'd look up to see puzzled onlookers wondering what on earth we were up to. Their interest wasn't always benign. We were often subjected to scorn and sometimes racially-tinged abuse. So whenever a curious passer-by detached himself from the watching parliament of crows and asked to join our game, we readily agreed. It felt like a benediction from the city.
O'Neill understands the alienating power of American cricket. As Chuck puts it to Hans: "You want a taste of how it feels to be a black man in this country? Put on the white clothes of the cricketer. Put on white to feel black." Hans does so, and is gradually drawn into Chuck's life of intertwined dreams and schemes. He eventually learns that Chuck complements his entrepreneurial cricket plans with dabblings in the criminal underworld. When he finds out that Chuck has involved him in one such dabbling, using him for his white Dutch skin, it almost ends their friendship.
Years later, back in London and reconciled with his wife, Hans hears that Chuck has been murdered, presumably as a consequence of his shady dealings. The Trinidadian's plan "to take the game to the Americans [...] to start a whole cricketing revolution" is never realised, and cricket remains the invisible province of immigrants playing in the shade of New York. After hearing of Chuck's death, Hans meets with one of the potential backers of the New York Cricket Club that might have been. The backer approves of establishing a club in New York and staging games there for an international audience, but not of trying to convert America to the game. "Would the big project have worked?" he muses. "No. There's a limit to what Americans understand. That limit is cricket."
But what can't be extended to the whole country can survive in New York. Chuck is at pains throughout the novel to stress how "native" cricket actually is. The sport was popular in New York long before baseball, cricket's red-haired stepchild, took centre stage. The Staten Island Cricket Club, which Hans joins, was established in 1873. Generations of cricketers have bowled and batted on crumbling fields around the city. Cricket's trouble is not that of the immigrant unable to integrate; it's the lot of the citizen somehow left behind.
So many representations of New York revere the city's relentless modernity. It is Frank Sinatra's New York, New York, the home of the Statue of Liberty, of Ellis Island, the city where the foreign arrives to become American. In this account, to become a New Yorker is to step into a land of opportunity, to let ties to old worlds dissolve in a melting pot, to stand on the prow of history as it races on.
In Netherland, O'Neill gifts New York the possibility of its own antiquity. What seems new in the city is often very old. Its inhabitants descend from native tribes, many of whom feel their ancestry as keenly (if not more so) as the daily claims of their metropolis. Chuck constantly reminds his fellow cricketers of their ancient New York pedigree. He also takes Hans to decaying Dutch cemeteries and gives him a book of colonial era nursery rhymes recalling the original Dutch settlement of New York. Chuck's history lessons lead to some remarkable passages, including one in which Hans — missing his faraway son - sings an 18th century Dutch nursery rhyme to himself on a train as he passes former rural Dutch outposts: Peekskill, Verplanck, Yonkers. O'Neill's inclusion of Dutch history is more than a pretext for a clever title. It is a reminder of New York's losses, like the slow, lonely death of spoken Dutch in America in the 1920s, when its last dialect faded in the hills of northern New Jersey. New York is as capable of forgetting a language as it is of creating a new form of cricket.
As a New Yorker, I take heart in this departure from the usual narrative. Platitudes about New York's energetic pace and bursting, bustling diversity are a dime a dozen. It is strangely comforting to read of a netherland existing quietly, albeit almost invisibly, beneath the current of seemingly ceaseless change.
Kanishk Tharoor is an associate editor at Open Democracy, a London-based online magazine of global politics and culture. He last wrote for The Review on Tate Britain's Lure of the East exhibit.
Updated: August 29, 2008 04:00 AM