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Frank Martinus Arion: Dubbelspel (Double Play)
The Faber Caribbean series was a wonderful idea but sadly it petered out virtually before it got started. Its aim was to publish not only books originally written in English but those written in French, Spanish and Dutch. This book was the only Dutch one to be published. Though it had very limited success in the English-speaking world, it was selected as one of the books for the Dutch Nederland Leest [Netherlands Reads] campaign, to promote reading and did quite well in that campaign. The story is, nominally, about dominoes which, according to Arion is a dangerous game, as the Dutch were able to take the Puerto Rican fort of El Morro from the Spanish in 1625, as the Spanish were too engrossed in a dominoes tournament. (A nice story but not true, though the Dutch did take San Juan but could not capture El Morro.)
Four men play dominoes every Sunday at the home of one of them. The novel tells the story of one of these games, a game which is historic and very eventful for all of the men. The first man is Manchi Sanantonio. On paper, at least, he is the most successful of the men. He is a bailiff of the court and, partially urged on by his three friends, he thinks he has a chance of becoming a judge. This feeling will preoccupy him during the game. He has, almost entirely on his own, built a very large house on the top of a hill, with splendid views, which is the envy of his neighbours. He is now thinking of adding a maid’s room or even building a separate weekend cottage by the sea. While building it, he was visited by a woman called Solema. Solema is both very attractive and very intelligent. She has been educated in the Netherlands and works as a teacher but is very concerned about the role of locals in the country and is even thinking of setting up a political party for this purpose. The other men envy Manchi his lovely, intelligent wife. They have three children but we do not see them. What his dominoes friends don’t know (or, rather, he thinks they don’t know – one does) is that he caught Solema having sex on a beach with a lawyer. He drove the lawyer away, symbolically charging him five guilders for the use of his wife, and he now makes her pay five guilders to him every time, when they have a meal which, so he says, symbolises the fact that she is a whore. What he doesn’t know is that she has had other affairs and, indeed, is currently having an affair with one of his domino-playing friends.
The second man and host is Bubu Fiel. He is a taxi driver and something of a man about town. Indeed, he is so well respected that the taxi drivers are thinking of making him head of their union, a position he does not want. He had married Nora and then, after they had had three children, he left her for another woman and he had lived with this woman for a year. He then returned and asked Nora to take him back. Initially, she refused but then, after a year, relented. They now have nine children. Bubu is very irresponsible. He drinks, gambles and has numerous affairs and never gives his wife enough money. During the course of the day depicted in this novel, she will be trying to get money to get her son a pair of shoes. The boy has done very well at school but it is a respectable school and he needs shoes to go there and he has none. Bubu Fiel had promised to get the money the night before and, indeed, he did but by the time he got back home he had lost it all gambling and had spent the night with a whore from the Dominican Republic (he is proud that he did not have to pay) and drinking, so during the game he is not in good shape and plays badly. He will spend much of the game thinking lustfully of the whore but also of of how he can get out of becoming president of the taxi drivers union. What he does not know is that Nora sleeps with various men, including one of the domino players, to get money to pay her household expenses. During much of the game, she will be trying to attract the attention of this man to”borrow” more money from him, to buy the shoes.
The third man is Chamon Nicholas. He is from Saba though has spent the last twenty-five years on Curaçao. He lives alone. He is the man who has been having a desultory affair with Nora but he is thinking of ending it (as it costs him too much) and spends much of the game thinking about this and trying to avoid Nora’s efforts to attract his attention. Finally, there is the best player, Janchi Pau. He has been a sailor and travelled all over the world but came back to Curaçao when his mother was ill. He started to build a house for her but she died. After her death he stayed on, working for Shell, but left the house unfinished, though he lives in it. He is having the affair with Solema and this preoccupies him somewhat during the course of the game.
The men play as partners – Manchi with Bubu Fiel and Janchi with Chamon. Janchi and Chamon usually win. Janchi is the best player but Chamon is very hesitant. Manchi is the second best player while Bubu Fiel does not have his skill. However, during this game, Manchi is preoccupied while Bubu Fiel is both preoccupied and suffering from a hangover. For some reason, Chamon plays very well. Accordingly, Janchi and Chamon soon build a commanding lead. We follow the game – will Manchi and Bubu Fiel make a comeback or will Janchi and Chamon gain a historic victory, winning all eleven sets? But we also follow the men and their various thoughts and preoccupations, we follow events away from the table, particularly Nora and Solema and we follow their conversation. They discuss many things but a key topic of conversation is the nature of Curaçao and its inhabitants. The country is run by foreign, white men, while agriculture is run by the Chinese and Portuguese. What is the nature of Curaçaoans that presents them from being leaders, entrepreneurs and farmers? This is a topic dear to Arion’s heart and it is examined in some detail.
The skill that Arion shows is to have us interested in both the development of the game but also the various plot lines going on, concerning the players and their wives and, at the same time, hearing the conversation, sometimes idle, more often about both their lives and the situation of the world, particularly their world. It makes for fascinating reading, as we move towards a conclusion which is both surprising but inevitable. It is sad that more of Arion’s work is not available in English.
First published 1973 by De Bezige Bij
First published in English by Faber & Faber in 1998
Translated by Paul Vincent