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  • Immagine del redattorePeter Byrne

After Luigi Di Castri

Luigi Di Castri’s account of living through 9/11 was too moving to allow its effect to be blurred by Xmas cheer. Other expats took up his story. Indeed, in a few years enough 9/11 books had been written to fill a library. One was Joseph O’Neill’s novel Netherland of 2008. At first sight, O’Neill might seem to fit into the mould of Oxbridge educated Brits who from W.H. Auden to Tina Brown and Christopher Hitchens had brilliant careers in American intellectual circles. Shrewdness apart, their advantage lay in Oxbridge training that taught them to write clear and easeful English. American universities, despite their occasional preeminence, did not generally inculcate that skill.

O’Neill had studied law at Cambridge. However, he was born in Ireland, had a Turkish mother and spent his youth in the Netherlands.  All of which gave him a wider perspective than that of an arrival from the Anglosphere.  He moved to New York in 1998 where he continued to work as a barrister. At this point, we let ourselves go to the cardinal sin of a literary critic. We identify the author’s life story with the fiction he fabricates. Like all novelists, O’Neill must decry such a move. Real figures too often find their depiction in a novel unsatisfactory and a novelist runs the risk of emasculation by striving to please them. The answer is to dress them up in a disguise. Listen to O’Neill’s  lawyerly pussyfooting:

“As  a novelist you use and take an interest in everything that is around you. But there isn’t a single incident in the book that I have personally experienced. What I would say is that real events authorise you to imagine.”

We take that under advisement and pursue our sinful way, which opens more windows and provides more busy-body fun than the strait and narrow of decorum. In Netherland O’Neill lends his voice to a ruminating character named Hans. The young man is swathed in a glitzier background than Luigi Di Castri’s. He has a pernickety English wife whose professional status equals his own. But like Luigi, Mr and Mrs Hans have been called to New York to work in the financial services that flourished as the 20th century ended. Both households seem enchanted   with the inexhaustible life-style choices available in the monstrous metropolis. Luigi made his home not far from the Twin Towers while Hans lived in a loft apartment in nearby Tribeca.

Luigi has told us of his intimate experience of the 9/11 onslaught. Hans, in Netherland, passes over the details that cut Luigi’s life  in two and finds his personal trauma in the change the attack made on his wife, Rachel. She is overwhelmed by the belief in post-9/11 New York that other horrors are on the way. While Hans, sullen and stunned, buries himself in Wall Street banking, Rachel insists on taking their infant son back to live in her parents’ home in London.

Now Hans is inordinately attached to the child Jake. He offers to leave his job and depart with Rachel. But it turns out that her move is about more than safety in everyday life. Hans is even aghast to find that the catastrophe had left many in “a state of elation….beneath all the tears and the misery, Rachel’s leaving had basically been a function of euphoria.” She wants at least for a while to live apart from Hans. Once ensconced again in London with the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan underway, Rachel thinks about geopolitics and insists that she would not return to America

“…before the end of the Bush administration or any successor administration similarly intent on a military and economic domination of the world. It was no longer a question of physical security…. rather of not exposing Jake to an upbringing in an ‘ideologically diseased’ country…a ‘mentally ill, sick unreal’ country….”

There followed a period of rock-bottom gloom for Hans in New York. It’s disguised by luxury and high-flying action typical of top workers in finance at the time. He shuttles back and forth over the Atlantic twice a month to keep alive his connection with his son. However, he fails to reignite that with  his enigmatic wife.

Luigi told us that he fled New York following the catastrophe and afterward lost faith in the romance of high finance during the banking debacle of 2008. Hans, less rooted elsewhere, was more tied to New York. His considerable paycheque balanced his innate unhappiness. He  hung  on  like  a grounded pigeon, morose, heavy with unhealthy fat. We marvel at his survival strategy. His megapolis, like everyone else’s, was the product of his fantasy. Hardly one native white American is found among his contacts. He lives in the Chelsea Hotel fabled for its atypical, not to say freakish denizens. His distaste for America beyond the island of Manhattan is flagrant. In his flaring prose:

“…I became familiar with the topical sights: the chiming, ceaselessly peregrinating ice-cream truck, driven by a Turk; the Muslim funeral home on Albemarle Road out of which watchful African American men spilled in sunglasses and black suits; the Hispanic gardeners working on the malls; the firehouse on Cortelyou that slowly gorged on reversing fire trucks; the devout Jewish boulevardiers on Ocean Parkway….”

His contrary-mindedness goes so far as to involve Hans in a mad scheme to rival the national sport of baseball with the gentlemanly pastime of cricket. The aberration incidentally makes Netherworld a superb meditation on that sport. It also grounds Hans in a Jamaican, Bangladeshi and what-have-you non-white immigrant world, while furnishing an intriguing plot-line, and making Netherworld a remarkable  book about New York seen from a peculiar angle.

It’s about time to separate O’Neill from his look-alike, Hans. The latter, worn down by his solitary NYC life, enlivened only by his batting a cricket ball on lumpy new-world turf, finally joins his son for good in London. The reader worries that he is going to spoil the boy with over-attention but that’s an extra-literary matter. Hans finds Rachel wandering in the ways of adultery with a Clerkenwell gastropub chef specialising in avant-garde treatment of ye-old Brit favourites of beetroot and turnips. But Rachel’s adventure with root vegetables ends when her master cook decides to change his menu. Hans rejoins the family home, wounds are licked, and the post 9/11 novel of marital skirmish ends. Battle-weary Hans concludes from his continent hopping:

“…Londoners remain in the business of rowing their boats gently down the stream….prematurely crystallisation of lives here, where men and women past the age of forty, in some cases even the age of thirty, may easily be regarded as over the hill and entitled to an essentially retrospective idea of themselves; whereas in New York  selfhood’s hill always seemed to lie ahead and to promise a glimpse of further, higher peaks: that you might have no climbing boots to hand was beside the point.”

Just as Luigi, Hans has had his life severed by 9/11. In a London conversation with a native, he is told that September 11th 2001 was, “Not such a big deal, when you think of everything that’s happened since.” Hans, visibly moved, can only reply gravely that on the contrary, “it was a very big deal.” What he implies is that the fall of the Towers was not only a tremendous bang but a powerful symbol. Something that all had taken as solid had crumbled to toxic dust.

In the long run, the two close-quarter witnesses of 9/11 responded each in his own way. Joseph O’Neill dug in and made New York his home. He continued to write fiction and even engage in political punditry in high-end US periodicals. Luigi Di Castri became a teacher. Faced with a sad turn in his personal life, his outlook was philosophic, his mood meditative. A more careful look into his Italian roots brought him to settle in Lecce and share his good fellowship with all of us.

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