Posted by: Corri van de Stege | June 19, 2008

NETHERLAND – In Crete

Three days into the holidays and it feels as if I’ve been away for weeks, that’s positive.  Just 200 metres from the apartment there is this brand-new complex with internet café and WiPlus set up, accessible from the roof garden overlooking the sea and with a nice cappuccino thrown in.  What else does one want after having spent the first day reading, swimming and eating good food?

Work and all that seems planets away and more or less unreal.

Reading Netherland by Joseph O’Neill while moving from home to overnight hotel in Gatwick, then by early plane to Crete, seems appropriate somehow.  It is a book full of unsettlement, questioning about where one lives or belongs.  I am fascinated by this book, the density of it and the way it firmly puts the world in a modern setting, in the here and now.  This is not an attempt to write a make-belief story but questions who and what we are when we are so dislocating ourselves.  Very appropriate in my case, having done something similar to Hans van den Broek, the main character in the book, who moves from The Netherlands to London and then to New York only to move back again to London.  I moved from The Netherlands to London to Iran and back to the Netherlands and have spent the last 15 years of my life once more in England, if not London this time around. 

The book’s title is a clever play on The Netherlands, but also this underworld, this unknown existence that one leads in a kind of nether world, dislocated, unsettled, never quite belonging.  The little nuggets about the Dutch character, although describing a totally different cultural background from that of my own, are so recognisable that at times I hold my breath and want to say, yes that’s exactly how it was, this is how it feels, how did you know that?  But you never go back there, it jut informs the way you are now.

This is also a book about New York and about the game of cricket, and about many other things.  I don’t know New York, have never even been to America, and know very little about cricket.  Both come alive and judging by the truthfulness with which O’Neill grasps the Dutch character I’m sure these other areas are just as honest.  I for one have been mesmerised by the way New York and cricket come to life, the immigrant communities, the friend, Chuck, the friendship between two males, with the male characters being what they are first and foremost, male, and relating to each other in that way.  It’s a wonderful glimpse into that different reality that is so rarely evoked so well.  So there’s dissettlement, there’s a failing marriage, there’s the cricket in a New York setting, the friendship that evolves between two such different immigrants, the Dutch equity analyst working for a merchant bank in New York and the immigrant from Trinidad, escaping the poverty of his background and making good in New York, in a shady kind of existence, never quite uncovered, and then there’s the failed marriage, the slightly unsavoury world in which Chuck moves but which is never revealed completely, and then, of course, there is the setting which is New York post 9/11.  The world is a different place, but not that different.  9/1 accentuates the unease we all experience with who we are and what we are about.

Some comparisons, isn’t that what aspiring writers are told to do, draw the analogies, as well as listing things our characters come across or deal with, in this book are quite striking and innovative.  For example, Hans expresses his sense of loss when he sees the New York forests and how, when on trips upstate with Rachel, his wife, he associates these with fauna whose corpses lay around in great numbers: skunks, deer and enormous indecipherable rodents that one never found in Europe.  His thoughts then go back to train journeys in Holland, when he was a student, between Leiden and The Hague, The yellow commuter train ran through canal-crossed fields as dull as graph paper.  Always one saw abundance of the tiny brick houses that the incontinent local municipalities, Voorschoten and Leidschendam and Rijswijk and Zoetermeer, pooped over the rural spaces surrounding The Hague.  Anyone who has ever been to Holland and spent any time there at all must appreciate this using of the Dutch landscape to contrast with the wildness somewhere else and the unknowingness and impenetrability which is so utterly absent in the Dutch landscape, or psyche.

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Responses

  1. […] O’Neill’s Netherland I reviewed here, I talked about Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and about Michael Cunningham’s The Hours here  and here […]


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