Frank Martinus Arion and Dutch-Caribbean Literature
Dutch is not only the language of two European nations on the North Sea; it is also the official language of Surinam, a former Dutch colony located on the northern edge of the South American continent which has been independent since 1975, as well as of the two Caribbean regions of the Kingdom of the Netherlands: the island group consisting of Curaçao, Bonaire, Sint Maarten, Saba and Sint-Eustatius, which together form the Netherlands Antilles, and the island of Aruba which since 1986 has enjoyed separate status as an independent nation within that Kingdom. Altogether just under a million people in the Caribbean are able to speak Dutch and do so daily, despite the fact that it is often not their mother tongue. And Dutch not only has a practical function in each of these three countries; it has also generated a notable literature. For Surinam we can think of names such as Albert Helman, Hugo Pos, Leo Henri Ferrier, Bea Vianen, Edgar Cairo, Astrid Roemer, Ellen Ombre and many others; for the Antillean islands there are writers such as Cola Debrot, Boeli van Leeuwen, Tip Marugg, Frank Martinus Arion, Jules de Palm, Denis Henriquez and others.
Frank Martinus Arion’s first, and best-known, novel Double Play (Dubbelspel) appeared just over twenty years ago. At the end of 1998 it was published in English translation by Faber & Faber in London. Frank Martinus Arion (1936-) attended secondary school on the island of his birth, Curaçao, before studying Dutch in Leiden in the Netherlands. He then went on to work as a lecturer and linguist in Amsterdam, Paramaribo (Surinam) and Willemstad (Curaçao). As a literary author he publishes both in his mother tongue Papiamento and in Dutch.
Anyone writing in Papiamento publishes for their own people. An author in the Caribbean region publishing in Dutch, however, is confronted with a twofold readership – the Dutch-speaking European reader for whom Dutch is the mother tongue but who finds the Caribbean culture described in this language alien to him; and the author’s own Caribbean readership who read about their own cultural reality in the ‘foreign’ Dutch language. In addition to this linguistic difficulty, the Dutch-Caribbean author also faces the problem of a three-fold cultural heritage, the result of the area’s colonial history, composed of indigenous Indian elements, the heritage of Africa and the heritage of Western Europe.
This heterogeneous background has shaped the literary work of Frank Martinus Arion throughout his writing career. Following several essays in schoolboy-Dutch, journalistic pieces and isolated publications, he published the poetry collection Voices from Africa (Stemmen uit Afrika) in 1957 at the age of 21; in it he set out his position regarding that continent and the Old World. He followed this with a few poetry collections in Papiamento published on Curaçao, which contain a more personal definition of his position. This was followed by the publication through the Amsterdam publisher De Bezige Bij of his now well-known Dutch-language novels Double Play (1973), Departure of the Queen (Afscheid van de Koningin, 1975), Noble Savages (Nobele wilden, 1979) and The Final Freedom (De laatste vrijheid, 1995).
Love at stake
Like many authors, Frank Martinus Arion is remembered as the writer of what is deemed to be a brilliant book. His second novel was regarded by many Dutch critics as a failure, while his last two novels failed to make a lasting impact. But within the space of a quarter of a century Double Play – the first major Dutch-language novel by a black Antillean author – has become a classic both in the literature of the Netherlands and of his country of birth, the Netherlands Antilles, and in a wider context within Dutch Caribbean literature.
When at the conclusion of Frank Martinus Arion’s fourth novel, The Final Freedom, the main character appeals in a television address to the people of the fictitious Caribbean island of Amber, which is threatened by a volcanic eruption, to remain rather than flee because the island represents the heart and soul of the Caribbean people, this at once reveals the main theme of the whole of Arion’s work: defence of the love of that which is one’s own – one’s own island and culture, one’s own responsibility towards that culture and, above all, one’s own language. By choosing this as the main theme of his work, the author is adopting an explicit standpoint. The commitment to that which is one’s own is accompanied by a resistance to that which is alien, even alien people, in this case Western people and their Western values. Arion’s elaboration of this theme is marked by a process of literary creolisation: he adopts Western traditions and interprets them in his own way. Creolisation is always a mix of imitation and creation. The imitation lies primarily in the use of Western literary forms – though greatly adapted and transformed – while the creation lies in the individual content and themes.
In Double Play the narrator confronts his readers first with the Caribbean variant of the game of dominoes, which is not a child’s pastime but a game typically played by men for high stakes. The story has no fewer than six main characters: the four men who play dominoes every Sunday afternoon and two women – the wives of two of the players, who have a relationship with the two other players, one because of the economic necessity of earning a little extra money, the other to take revenge on her authoritarian husband. And so the game of dominoes also becomes a game involving human pawns. The game also provides the structure for the book, with the ‘fore play’ between the early and late Sunday morning, the game itself which begins in the afternoon and lasts until dusk, and the ‘afterplay’ during the evening of the same day. The game takes place at the house of one of the players. And there we have the three classical European units of time, place and action. Using the description of the game, the story is carried to a climax as in a drama. But having six main characters enables the narrator to bring this drama to a positive conclusion – a very important thing for Frank Martinus Arion because he is seeking to prove that the Caribbean people have not embraced the European pessimistic view of the world.
A second layer to the story is provided by a psychological portrait of the main characters, quite ordinary inhabitants of Curaçao, all of whom are black and come from the lower middle classes, and their world of ideas. Manchi Sanantonio and his wife Solema are the best-off economically with their jobs as bailiff and teacher, respectively; Bubu Fiel is a taxi-driver whose earnings are so irregular and who is parted from his money so easily that his wife Nora constantly has difficulty making ends meet; and Chamon Nicolas and Janchi Pau are ordinary workers at the oil refinery.
These six characters are portrayed in a negative or positive light depending on their attitude towards the island. The losing domino players have no love for what is their own: the island and their wives. They therefore not only lose the game, but also their wives, their good name and honour, and ultimately their lives. The novel is dedicated ‘to women with courage’, and it is Solema who demonstrates this courage and together with Janchi Pau becomes the focus of the positive ending to the story. Love builds its own future: ‘So, because he loved her, did he suddenly care more about this country, did the course of events leave him less cold than before? Then the analysis he’d just given was wrong. Then, from a logical point of view, there was no other way of seeing it. It wasn’t education that this country needed, but love! This feeling that he had. Because with this feeling you could do things. You could keep animals with it and you could make plants grow with it. You could finish a house with it (…). He formulated it slowly to himself: We need love. We’ve got to start loving this country more and our women too.’
Finally, the game of dominoes functions as a metaphor for the island and its polities in the protest against the power of foreigners and the plea for the country to have control over its own destiny and its own political responsibility. This makes Double Play very much a product of the late 1960s and early 70s, a product of what in recent decades has come to be known as the ‘30th of May movement’. During a major strike followed by widespread rioting – the revolt and fires of 30 May 1969 in which large sections of the capital went up in flames – the people of Curaçao demonstrated that they were no longer prepared to accept the dominance of foreigners and the power of their own elite. The arson and looting had to be brought under control by specially flown-in Dutch marines, and engendered the Dutch wish to effect speedy independence for the Caribbean parts of the Kingdom – a wish which incidentally was only acceded to by Surinam, on 20 November 1975. The Netherlands Antilles and Aruba opted – and continue to opt – for permanent ties within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The novel Double Play voices the socio-political commitment to greater responsibility for black people around 30 May 1969.
This brings us to the question of how relevant the book is, 25 years on. As early as the 1950s the physician/writer and later governor Cola Debrot was continually emphasising Antillean self-reliance versus Dutch cultural domination. His vision ultimately shaped much of the later thinking in the Netherlands Antilles, including that of Frank Martinus Arion.
The positive side is shown on the Monument to Autonomy, which was erected to commemorate the domestic self-governing status acquired under the Statute of 1954, with the eloquent words of Queen Wilhelmina: ‘supported by our own strength but with the will to aid and assist each other’ – with the emphasis on the belief in their own strength. The negative aspect of this emphasis on that which is one’s own is a tendency to isolate oneself. The creolisation supported by Frank Martinus Arion does indeed have a tendency to segregate itself from the outside world and bury itself in its own language, traditions, etc.
The novel Double Play is set on the third Sunday in November somewhere in the early 1970s. The reaction to the riots of 30 May 1969 is a critical one. Since that day the island has become even sadder, because ultimately nothing has changed politically. The only value of the riots was that it showed the foreigners that the population was no longer prepared simply to accept everything. There is a general view that 30 May was nothing more than a wild evening of drinking and arson. This viewpoint is understandable, because Double Play aims to be constructive rather than demolish. One of the most important motifs in the novel is that of construction, symbolised in the houses of the four main characters.
The negative side of the commitment to self-reliance is expressed in the rejection of the foreigners who wish to retain total power and who are consequently blamed for everything that goes wrong. The Dutch are described by Janchi, the main character who is given the positive leading role in the narrative, as ‘apes, barbarians, under-developed and uncivilised creatures’ – an idea Arion also voiced in his magazine Ruku (1969-1971). Nora has an aversion to the people of the Windward Islands and hates everything white because she blames white people for all the misery affecting simple people such as her. On the other hand, the unproductive inhabitants of Curaçao also come under sharp fire. The criticism of Europe and Western culture is accompanied by a positive portrayal of Africa.
Yardstick of individuality
The fact that this theme – a critical plea for the retention of all that is ‘one’s own’ – is a constant in all Frank Martinus Arion’s work is easily demonstrated. In his second novel, Departure of the Queen, the Antillean main character defines his attitude to Africa and Europe and takes his leave not only of the Dutch Queen and the West, but also of the image he had of Africa: positive in his earlier work, it has now turned out to be a myth. Only those who exploit their own, admittedly limited, development opportunities make progress in Africa – not the elite who sell their souls to Western capitalism. The actual queen is therefore an ordinary Dutch woman who takes advantage of these development opportunities on behalf of the people.
In his third novel, Noble Savages, the colonies in the Caribbean and the mother country France are opposed as centre and periphery, but it also be comes apparent that in France itself the miracle of Lourdes in Southern France and the appearance of Mary to the simple young girl Bernadette Soubirous run counter to the feelings of superiority prevailing in metropolitan Paris. In the middle of these oppositions the Antillean main character personifies the vitality of the Third World, the power of true imagination, as a necessary alternative to the old, tired West, which is doomed to decline.
In The Final Freedom the author voices the ultimate wish for freedom to control one’s own life. According to a foreign expert, a volcano on the fictitious island of Amber is about to erupt, but the Curaçao teacher Daryll Guenepou refuses to be evacuated and stays behind. This is largely due to the fact that on 1 September 1994 – twenty years after political independence – Creole is to be introduced as the language of education on the island, something which Daryll has been unable to achieve in his own country with his mother tongue Papiamento. Once again, therefore, the yardstick of individuality is used, the development from within of the country’s own education system, with its own language of instruction. Right from Ivan Illich’s motto at the front of the book, not a single good word is said about foreign experts – the main character forgets for the sake of convenience that he is one too – the pessimism of Europeans is emphasised and nothing positive is said about the Netherlands or Europe. It is actually Daryll’s strength that he has never been to Europe. As a contrast, the great knowledge which Africa possessed long before European culture existed is emphasised in a positive way. Egyptian knowledge of astronomy was, it is claimed, stolen from Africa!
In The Final Freedom Frank Martinus Arion also judges a number of his fellow authors according to whether or not they have undergone a process of creolisation. Of the Caribbean authors, Jan Carew, George Lamming and Derek Walcott are rated favourably; V.S. Naipaul gets a poor rating, because he ‘is one of the greatest imitators of Europeans’. The story wipes the floor with pessimists such as Shakespeare, Goethe, E.M. Remarque and John le Carré on account of the pessimism of their heroes, all of whom are predestined to die.
Judgements of this sort by the author may have had a function in the critical seventies and thereafter in certain circles; today, however, they appear dated. As a result, Frank Martinus Arion’s later novels have never managed to make any lasting impact. This brings us back to the question of the continuing popularity of Double Play, since that contained the same thematic constant. Why is it only Double Play that has become a classic work which is still read with admiration, which is reprinted time after time and translated, in spite of its dated socio-economic and political framework?
The answer has to be sought in the novel’s composition and style. Double Play has a lightness of touch full of an ironic aloofness and ability to put things into perspective. With its technique of putting each of the six main characters in the spotlight in turn, combined with the tight ordering of time and space, the story has a splendid compositional rhythm in which the dominoes and the players are organically interwoven with a wide range of information about Curaçao society.
By Wim Rutgers
Translated by Julian Ross
First published in The Low Countries, 1999
Double Play (Tr. Paul Vincent). London, 1998.
Glaser, Marlies and Marion Pausch, Caribbean Writers: Between Orality & Writing, Amsterdam / Atlanta, 1994 (Matatu no. 12.).
Rowell, Charles (ed.): ‘Caribbean Literature from Surinam, the Netherlands Antilles, Aruba, and the Netherlands’. Callaloo. Vol. 21, no. 3, 1998.