Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Beneath the Surface

The novel in English that commanded the widest attention in the literary papers in 2008 was Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill, who—the cover says—was born in Ireland and was raised mainly in the Netherlands. Now he lives in New York, and this is where he has set his story. The protagonist is a Dutchman, Hans van den Broek, a successful oil analyst in a big financial firm. He is married to an Englishwoman, Rachel, who is drifting away from him. They have a child, Jake. In part, the plot traces the fortunes of this marriage, through separation to a kind of reunion. It's done in a muted way that reflects the muted tones of the relationship. More vividly—in the interstices between the marital events—there occurs Hans's growing friendship with Chuck Ramkissoon, an amiable and expansive man from Trinidad. Chuck has various money-making business schemes, some of which may be legal. He has as a partner a Jewish man, whom no-one likes very much but whose existence in the partnership enables Chuck to buy commercial real estate from Jews, and also to run a Kosher sushi business. Another scheme is to establish cricket as a popular sport in America.

The novel is about being outside society, looking in, trying to puzzle out what is going on, trying to find one's place. It is about the question of what gives meaning to life. It is set in the years following the destruction of the World Trade Center. The disruption of this event acts as a background for the disruption of lives of immigrants, thrown into a place that looks as if it might be partly familiar, but which is often bewildering. It is a fine novel, which belongs in our archive of Psychologically Significant Fiction, for which you may click here.

And cricket! What an improbable subject. Hans says he first started to play cricket at school in Holland. I had no idea that the Dutch play cricket. Hans takes up cricket again when his wife separates from him and returns with their son to England. Cricket is seen not just a game but an engine of meaning about equality and fairness.

Cricket is tremendously popular in many parts of the world, across many cultures. On the only occasion when I visited Singapore, I went for a walk one afternoon near the harbour and there, on a closely mown green field, a game of cricket was in progress. I dawdled and watched, as one does when one sees a cricket match. A fast bowler bowled. The batsman with his bat straightish but slanted slightly backwards, pushed forward a bit to his right, and the ball ran at a controlled pace towards mid off, who was standing deep. "Yes," yelled the batsman. He ran, and the man at the other end, who was backing up, ran with his bat outstretched to reach for the crease. The fielder at mid off came in fast. In one movement he stooped while on the run, scooped up the ball, and threw to the wicket keeper, who caught the ball and flicked off the bails. The square leg umpire was unmoved. Not out. Another spectator, also apparently taking a walk, was dawdling towards me. "Good cricket," he shouted towards the middle of the field. Extraordinary that I should remember the incident after 15 years. Extraordinary that the language of cricket, which to outsiders seems nonsensical, seems straightforward to everyone who has been brought up with it. "Double Dutch" is a term the English use for something they can't understand. For foreigners, just the singular, "cricket," is enough.

In the novel, Hans is mildly surprised that the men in the New York region cricket team for which he plays—from the Caribbean, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka—should make the game the occasion of affection and of caring for each other. On the surface, the novel is about the integration of foreigners into American society, about the taking up of new customs, about whether one can transform old habits to suit them to the new place. Or might the games of our childhood, perhaps, catch on? Underneath, in the netherland, the novel is of wistfulness and melancholy. Cricket represents youth, and a past that constantly infuses the present with meanings that may or may not be appropriate as the protagonist steps warily into a culture that he does not quite want to join. For Hans, the future might be to settle in America, or to live alone, or to return to a wife he doesn't understand, or to take as central to his life a son he doesn't yet know. Is it possible that meaning can be formed in the new, even though its structure can be only vaguely seen, and when we have as yet no words?

Joseph O'Neill (2008). Netherland. New York: Pantheon.


allanmcdougall said...

"Cricket is seen not just a game but an engine of meaning about equality and fairness."

Keith, this quote reminded me of the epic Bollywood film "Lagaan"--directed by Ashutosh Gowarikar. You'll love all four hours of it.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you Allan, for this recommendation of "Lagaan." I have not seen it, but I have just looked up the movie site ... it looks like a very interesting film, and I will make sure I see it.

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