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Joseph O'Neill: 'Cricket is my athletic mother tongue'

The author's cricket-themed novel Netherland has fetched him comparisons to Fitzgerald and Naipaul

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Joseph O' Neill, the author of <i>Netherland</i>, Paris, July 3, 2009

"Cricket is a metaphor for the boundaries of American perception. It's an invisible thing that they cannot see or understand"  •  Ulf Anderson/Getty Images

For all the wealth of literature that cricket has generated over the years, there is a surprising gap in the fiction genre. Test Kill by Ted Dexter springs to mind, along with Malcolm Knox's superb debut novel, Adult Book, but pound for pound there have been comparatively few attempts. Perhaps no one has felt they can better the narrative that unfolds in your average cricket match. Or perhaps they just haven't found the right canvas yet.
Because here's a thing. A new novel has just emerged that is taking the American literary scene by storm. The New York Times has described it as "the wittiest, angriest, most exacting and most desolate work of fiction we've yet had about life in New York and London after the World Trade Center fell," while the legendary James Wood, arguably the most influential critic of them all, has hailed the work as a post-colonial masterpiece, and happily bracketed the author alongside such luminaries as VS Naipaul, F Scott Fitzgerald and Salman Rushdie. High praise indeed. And cricket, remarkably, is right at the novel's core.
Not any ordinary cricket, mind you, for the hybrid form of the game around which Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill, revolves is far removed from the genteel pastime from whence the game sprang. New York cricket, or "bush" cricket, as it is dismissively referred to by the book's Dutch narrator, Hans van den Broek, is a barely noticed subculture played out on matting wickets in scrubby park wastelands, almost exclusively by immigrants from South Asia and the West Indies. "Cricket in New York is exotic, marginal and invisible," says the author, O'Neill. "It makes for interesting fictional territory."
It is a territory that O'Neill knows inside-out. As an Irishman of Turkish descent who grew up in Holland and was educated at Cambridge University, he is a very different brand of immigrant to the men who make up the majority of New York cricketers. And yet, after moving to America in 1998, he was drawn to the game in precisely the manner of everyone else with whom he plays. Cricket, as he puts it, is his "athletic mother tongue" - even if he took to, say, baseball, he could never hope to have the same understanding of its intricacies. And so, every weekend for the past decade, Staten Island CC, which was founded in 1872 and is the oldest cricket club in the country, has provided O'Neill and countless others with a very particular slice of home comfort.
O'Neill is a barrister by profession but has written two previous novels, as well as a family history, Blood-Dark Track, which addresses the fate of his Turkish and Irish grandfathers during World War II, and was nominated as one of The Economist's Books of the Year for 2002. "People who knew me were very worried when they heard I was writing about cricket," he told Cricinfo. "It does seem a very marginal literary theme, but apparently not." Far from it, as his end product handsomely reveals.
The novel revolves around two main protagonists. There's van den Broek, a wealthy financial analyst who drifts listlessly back to his childhood passion, following the loss of his mother and the September 11-induced meltdown of his marriage. Then there is the Trinidadian dreamer, Chuck Ramkissoon, a shady yet gregarious beacon of optimism, who has delusions of grandeur that will, we learn from the first chapter, lead to his murder, but whose plausibility, ambition and vision embody that great yet tarnished ideal of the American Dream. The novel has more than a touch of The Great Gatsby as the pair collide, and ultimately collude - unwittingly on van den Broek's part, as he tries to piece together the fragments of his own broken dreams.
"Cricket, like all great sports, is a great connective tissue between various otherwise unconnected groups. I would have very little in common with Pakistani immigrants in New York City, and even West Indian immigrants, if it wasn't for cricket"
Ramkissoon is the dominant personality in the book, and his ultimate goal is to build a world-class cricket stadium, right in the heart of New York City. "All people, Americans, whoever, are at their most civilised when they're playing cricket," he explains to van den Broek. "What's the first thing that happens when Pakistan and India make peace? They play a cricket match. Cricket is instructive, Hans. It has a moral angle... I say, we want to have something in common with Hindus and Muslims? Chuck Ramkissoon is going to make it happen. With the New York Cricket Club, we could start a whole new chapter in U.S. history. Why not?"
"It is a classic American enterprise in its ambition and dreaminess," says O'Neill, although the author's own experiences in the city's leagues have led him to believe that the notion is not entirely fanciful. "Cricket, like all great sports, is a great connective tissue between various otherwise unconnected groups," he says. "I would have very little in common with Pakistani immigrants in New York City, and even West Indian immigrants, if it wasn't for cricket."
"And yet, if you know cricket, you know the difference between someone from Jamaica and someone from Florida, or the difference between a Bangladeshi and a Trinidadian East Indian," he says. "Just the fact of cricket is a fantastic way of bringing people together. So the dreamer at the centre of my novel really is onto something. He really does think that if White America wants to have something in common with the Muslim world, cricket can act as one of those bridges."
Ultimately, however, Ramkissoon's ambition ends in failure, and for that reason O'Neill is keen to re-emphasise that, regardless of the cricketing content, his novel should ultimately be regarded as an American product. "The force of cricket as a countercultural activity resonates more strongly if you are an American reader being confronted with this alien activity," he says. "You can't write a novel about cricket unless you plug into an old, possibly suspect tradition of English literature, but this is not really about that at all. Cricket is drifting very quickly away from its 19th century, Tom-Brown's-schooldays view of itself, to the extent that that idea doesn't exist at all."
For O'Neill, there is a clear sense of regret, maybe even frustration, that an opportunity for East-West understanding lies unwanted beneath America's nose. "Cricket is a metaphor for the boundaries of American perception," he says. "It's an invisible thing that they cannot see or understand, and the plight of the American cricketer, in terms of his visibility in the culture and in the eyes of his adopted country, in some ways resonates with the problem that the rest of the world has in its dealings with the United States."
The political force of the novel is carried for the most part by Hans' estranged wife, Rachel, who returns to London in disgust at the USA's hawkish response to 9/11, leaving her husband ashamed at his own passionless response. But for van den Broek - and for the cricket fans who pick up this book - the theme of loss and regret is most poignantly addressed on the field of play, for which O'Neill reserves his most poetically sumptuous descriptions.
One passage in particular is worth quoting in full, for if there has been a more vivid portrait of the game's traditional rhythms, I have yet to hear it: "The American adaptation," O'Neill writes, "is devoid of the beauty of cricket played on a lawn of appropriate dimensions, 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."
In the cricketing sense, van den Broek is a clear autobiographical representation of his author. O'Neill played at age group level for Holland (a connection that is alluded to when Hans uses Cricinfo's scorecards to track his former team-mates' performances in the 2003 World Cup). And both learned their games on the billiard-green outfields of Houdt Braef Standt CC, where orthodoxy was rewarded by runs, and where hitting the ball in the air was a sin beyond compare. In a pivotal passage of the novel, van den Broek is urged by Ramkissoon to adapt his style and take the aerial route, to score the runs that are permanently denied to him when he plays his natural game.
"When we love sport, we don't just love throwing the ball and running around, we love all the complicated meanings buried in the activity," says O'Neill. "Hans is just nostalgic. To transform himself as a cricketer is to put more distance between himself and his childhood days, when he would play out dot-balls and occupy the crease while his mother watched him from the sidelines."
Yet, as van den Broek meditates on his dislocation, he realises that the game he knew and loved in his youth is already shrinking over the horizon. "The game is speeding up and heading east," says O'Neill. "In the novel it's clear how Hans is in love with the visual spectacle of the game, the white on green, and the slowness of its rhythms. I love that too, but all those connotations are disappearing, and in New York City, they have long since been absent."
The notion of America as a dream destination, O'Neill concludes, has lost its currency thanks to economic globalisation, and the nation's critics have queued up to praise Netherland for the soul-baring manner in which it portrays this fact. But the themes of this novel seem equally pertinent to the sport at its core. Cricket is no longer the game that has been faithfully documented for centuries.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo