Cricket and life are two very different things, but to the lovers of the game they often seem the same, or at least seem to inhabit a continuous plane of existence.
The contest of bat and ball seems a smaller version of the great game of life; the variability of pitches, weather and circumstance is a symptom of the workings of chance in all human affairs; the effort to impose oneself on the rectangle of brown within the circle of green is emblematic in some mysterious but compelling way of the human condition in general. “For what was an innings if not a singular opportunity to face down, by dint of effort and skill and mastery, the variable world?” asks Hans van den Broek, the stoical and embattled protagonist of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. And we can see what he means. Indeed, he is totally adrift in “the variable world” and, for a brief period, cricket is his only means of hanging on at the crease on the pitch of life.
Unlikely heroes:The US cricket team is yet to find a fan following in cricket-loving nations, but it participates in the ICC Cricket World Cup. Photograph: Nicolas Asfouri / AFP
O’Neill’s novel, his third, has its home in the scattered cricket fields of New York, one of cricket’s earliest centres (as one character in the book points out, the first international cricket matches were between the US and Canada in the mid-19th century).
Hans is a Dutchman married to an Englishwoman, and his job in banking brings him to New York where, very soon, he begins to inhabit “the nativity New York encourages even its most fleeting visitor to imagine for himself”. But soon Hans’ world begins to collapse around him. His wife, Rachel, feels their marriage is unsatisfactory, and wants to move back to London with their young son, Jake.
Hans is unable to dissuade Rachel and, ever the one to take the blame for a shared crisis, is left with a great burden of rejection and failure. A family man, he is now cut loose from all his moorings, and does not know how to find respite. His journey is a classic trope in the American novel, which is the story of the limping and defeated loser struggling with his intransigent nature in an environment of optimism and self-reinvention.
Netherland:Fourth Estate,248 pages, £14.99 (around Rs1,200).
Hans shares many similarities, for instance, with Tommy Wilhelm, the protagonist of Saul Bellow’s great short novel Seize The Day. Both live in hotels, both are estranged from their wives and torn from their children, and both are “to anyone who could be bothered to pay attention, noticeably lost”.
Hans used to play some cricket as a boy in Holland, and one day, taking up an invitation from a Pakistani cab driver, he goes to a weekend club game at Staten Island. He finds himself the only white man in a motley crowd of Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis and West Indians, but this sense of being pulled out into a new set is a relief to him, and he finds playing cricket again immensely calming. O’Neill evokes this calm majestically in his description of “the sights and sounds and rhythms of a full day’s cricket, in which unhurried time is portioned out by the ticking of ball against bat”.
Cricket in this description is a kind of restorative clock set to a more languorous speed than others, encouraging everybody to slow down and appreciate the big picture and the finer details. It is through cricket, too, that Hans meets an older Trinidadian, called Chuck Ramkissoon— a great dreamer and schemer who talks “incessantly, indefatigably, virtuosically”, is a master of the grand pronouncement (“women are responsible for the survival of the world; men are responsible for its glories”), and has a plan for building a cricket stadium in Brooklyn. The stadium, in Chuck’s optimistic view, will make New York a centre of world cricket.
Hans finds succour in this unlikely brotherhood of men who have come together through a shared love of the game, and in the infectious enthusiasm of Chuck and his motto of “Think fantastic”.
Netherland is an exquisite achievement on every level, from the stream of beautifully weighted and sonorous sentences that ripple on page after page to the larger architecture of narrative time and of plot.
The captivating sound of Hans’ voice and the density with which his predicament is evoked redeem the novel form from the assaults made on it every week by the dozens of shapeless, derivative, and linguistically insipid works that pass under the same name. Through cricket, Hans recovers some lost part of his life, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that through O’Neill’s novel you might be given back some part of yours.
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