Netherland by Joseph O’Neill


Interest in Joseph O’Neill’s new book that will be published in June reminded me that I had not read his much-loved Netherland from 2008. It worked as an audiobook despite roving over time from 2001 to 2006 in an apparently random way. Because much of the joy of this book is its focus on the love of the game of cricket and a largely mysterious character named Chuck Ramkissoon, this method of storytelling works. The story of the narrator and his family unfolds along the way.

The narrator is a Dutchman named Hans, who at the outset lives with his wife and small child in Manhattan at the time of  9/11. Rachel is British and unnerved by the politics of the US and perhaps unhappy with Hans, moves back to London. Hans, a successful banker, has time on his hands and finds himself the only white man playing cricket with a variety of Pakistanis, Indians, Sri Lankans, and others. Through the voice of Chuck, an Indian by way of Trinidad (like V.S. Naipaul), we hear of the wonder and beauty of cricket. While he apparently makes his way by running a numbers game, he has aspirations to create a cricket arena and bring the game the glory it deserves. He claims it was the earliest team sport in the US and had been played in New York since the 1770s.

At this point I must interject the voice of Bill Bryson, whose characterization of cricket as he learned about it in Australia, stands in contrast. This YouTube clip of him as an announcer for cricket on the radio is priceless. He goes on to say, “It is the only sport that incorporates meal breaks. It is the only sport that shares its name with an insect. It is the only sport in which spectators burn as many calories as players, more if they are moderately restless.”

I was taken with this passage describing a moment when Hans was at a casino:

I think it’s customary in the kind of narrative to which this segment of my life appears to lend itself to invoke the proverb of “rock bottom.” The profundity of woe. The depth of shit from which the sufferer can go nowhere but to higher, more sweetly-scented places.  In terms of objective calamities, of course, the adversity of Hans van den Broek, as such a tale might be called, amounts to not very much. But it’s also true that the casino floor felt to me like an ocean bottom. In my blackness I wasn’t to know that I lay only and exactly one fathom below the surface, one fathom, I’ve heard it said, being the reach of a pair of outstretched arms. Then and there among the blushing slots, I underwent a swerve in orientation, as though I’d been affected by the abrupt consensus of movement that redirects flocking birds. I decided to move back to London.

This was far from the only beautiful and moving passage in the book.

In a passage I marked as “fun,” Hans speaks of the wonder he felt when he first arrived in London in his 20s. He felt like a performing extra among the thousands of men swarming down the street in dark suits. He said there was something “romantic about the leftover twinkle of empire” in parts of the city. “At Eaton Place in drizzle I half expected to run into Richard Bellamy, MP, and when I say that in Berkeley Square I once listened for a nightingale, I’m not joking.” I wonder how many people remember Lord Bellamy from Upstairs, Downstairs or the World War II era romantic song “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.”

Joseph O’Neill, Netherland, Pantheon Books, 2008, 256 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the public library.

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