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The test player

Joseph O’Neill talks to Indrajit Hazra about the lyrical novel, post-national writing and the oddity of placing cricket at the centre of his great America novel, Netherland.

books Updated: Dec 13, 2008 22:59 IST
Indrajit Hazra

The strange thing about having a transcontinental telephone conversation with Joseph O’Neill is that it seems that you’ve already met the guy. Sounding nothing like what his square-jawed James Cagney-like photo at the back flap of his latest book might suggest, the author of Netherland (Fourth Estate, Rs 295), a stunning gem of a novel on location, dislocation and human despair, sounds like the proverbial Englishman in New York.

It is somewhere in the middle of an hour-long chat that you realise who he sounds like: Hans van den Broek, the protagonist of O’Neill’s novel.

Speaking in a clipped, clean manner O’Neill sounds less barrister, more theologian. “Well, I find legal reasoning quite attractive. As someone who practises civil law, I have to write submissions and dealing with precise language propels the imagination when I’m writing books.” O’Neill, who is half-Irish, half-Turkish, always wanted to be a writer. He was the first O’Neill to go to university but he opted for law because he “wanted to preserve himself from literary clutter”.

Netherland is a very different novel from his two earlier ones. This Is The Life and The Breezes were ‘tragi-comedies’, while his latest novel is a chiselled — furrowing almost — plotless tale of one man in a new city negotiating the tremendous weights of individual sufferings. The language is fiercely lyrical and O’Neill brings us face to face with a constant, seamless violence that lies on the surface of an individual’s war against a hostile world and that leads to the less physical dark nights of the soul.

“I wanted to write a book that I couldn’t write. A lyrical novel is far more difficult to pull off. America is receptive to a popular zeitgeist. In post-9/11 America, I was lucky tapping into this zeitgeist,” says O’Neill.

At the core of the book lie two real engines: New York City, with its all-pervading sense of a throbbing paranoia mixed with a lust for life; and cricket. Yes, cricket. How on earth did O’Neill manage to write an ‘America novel’ with a sport that the actor Robin Williams once described as ‘baseball on valium’ as its fulcrum? That’s like a Great Indian Novel with baseball as its leitmotif. “No publisher was ready to touch this book. Whenever they came to the word ‘cricket’, they simply fled,” says the one-time member of the Dutch under-19 cricket squad and who now, like his hero Hans, plays for the Staten Island Cricket Club. “I had to change the pitch of the novel for people to have been interested in it.”

The trope of cricket being played by New York immigrants is vital to Netherland. “Identities are complex. How one decides on one’s identity is how one decides to tell one’s own narrative. This narrative is typically the ‘homeland’. But there are other things too,” says O’Neill. In this way, his novel is less ‘post-colonial’ and more ‘post-national’ in which cricket, itself imbued with a narrative of power and class as exported by the British Empire and assimilated in parts of the world like India, is stripped of its power. “In the disorienting world that Hans inhabits after shifting from London to post-apocalyptic New York, after his wife and son move back to London, he needs something, some string to cling on to. Playing cricket with other immigrants in New York provide him with that string.”

The other theme running through Netherland is that of memories and how it runs into conflicts with the real world. In a stunning passage in which Hans visits his mother in Holland a month before her death, O’Neill writes in the narrator’s voice: “...she’d struck me as a type of stranger. At the least, there was something unsatisfactory about her embodied presence as she went backwards and forwards from the kitchen to the time-shrunken dining room, or passed the cheese slicer over a hunk of cheese, or settled down, as she did on my first night, to watch television until ten o’clock, when she went to bed. And it may well be that my own actuality destroyed expectations of her own. What these were I cannot say, but it is hard not to suspect that she opened the door hoping to meet someone other than this businessman who stood at the threshold.”

What holds true for people, holds true for cities, countries, concepts. The idea and the reality stray further from each other. “Twenty-20 cricket, for instance, has been played in New York for years. That’s the only way it is played here,” says O’Neill. “The notion of Test cricket, this pure thing, remains alongside the changing face of the sport.”

Memories, remembrances and how they don’t fit into an ever-changing, hostile world is a despairing theme. “It is, in a sense, a novel of despair,” says O’Neill. Netherland is also a lyrical depiction of utter violence — violence that is public in the form of the dark, chaotic recesses of our times, and above all, violence that is private, that gnaws away at individuals. O’Neill reminds me that this connection of the private and the public in the form of a sport — cricket — is the theme of C.L.R. James’ seminal book, Beyond the Boundary.

So who is O’Neill’s favourite cricketer? “Dik [Sulaiman] Abed. He was a South African who played for the Netherlands and was supposed to play for the 1969 tour of South Africa before it was cancelled because of apartheid. He was truly a great,” says O’Neill firmly and wistfully, giving a clue of what a great lyrical novel should be.