The Last Great Author of Curaçao?
On Frank Martinus Arion

Frank Martinus Arion

Frank Martinus Arion

Over the phone, the most famous writer of the Netherlands Antilles said to meet him at the bar on the roof of the Otra Banda Hotel, overlooking Willemstad’s coast and its Luis Brion Plaza, the town square with a statue dedicated to Admiral Brion, an admiral in Bolivar’s military who was born and died on the island of Curaçao. A quote from Simon Bolivar is emblazoned below the feet of Brion: ‘In so far as I am capable, I shall send monuments to Brion to the remotest corners of posterity.’ There is a possible undertone of irony, not understood by local pilgrims to the shrine, in Bolivar’s statement: Brion eventually was among the many who betrayed the Liberator of Venezuela and the founder of the dream of a Greater Colombia; those remotest corners of posterity Bolivar envisioned for his turncoat general’s monuments might have been deep under the sea.

The shadow cast by the looming statue grew longer upon the cobblestones of the Plaza as people gathered and danced to bands playing bailabel: the popular band music I knew from Aruba, songs about people who drink rum until they fall into a tub of it, and songs of unruly couples and adultery. (At least one of these carnival ballads sung on Aruba in a comical way, was a homage to the Colombian woman who runs off with a man tired of his conservative Arubian wife’s hangups in bed.) Nearby, in the bay, a ferry did the rounds, mooring at piers where passengers and camera-armoured buccaneers gathered, out of line and not paying a dime to Charon.

Frank Martinus Arion appeared on the rooftop, wearing what seemed like a doctor’s short-sleeved shirt. Under the parted wiry hair, his shaven ebony face was awash with the dark blue hues made by the sunlight breaking through the blue vinyl covering of the bar.

Arion’s poems, at times mystical, speak of how the Antillean poet senses himself loved by the elements on the island where he was born. The breeze is known to be more forgiving on Curaçao, dreamier, and kinder than on Aruba, where physicians say the constant, pushy north-east wind provokes disease in the muscles and the spine. This superstition was confirmed as soon Arion sat down before me: a gust entered his physician’s shirt through the collar, pushing the buttoned fabric outwards, as if tugging at him.

Quickly the formalities I reserved for him and for my elders collapsed as he swept them aside with a gesture. In his soft-spoken voice which was at odds with his strong, robust build, he gave me advice. He had noticed that I seemed to be a young drop-out from the educational system on Aruba. He recommended I join him to see the island’s woodlands and hills (there are no mountains on our islands) that had crystals in the soil, like the famous crystal-incline on Aruba; he spoke of freshwater lakes where, if you were lucky, a sort of local Caribbean deer could be seen. I wondered if the Curaçao deer or gazelle was a metaphor for a young girl, like the women full of eros that populate his poems, the Congolese lunar negress from ‘My Negress’ (‘Mijn Negerin’) or the ‘white negresses,’ the pale Sephardi Jewesses of the capital city, whom he praises in another poem (‘De Witte Negerinnen’) whose dark hair and splendid carnality give them away despite their bourgeois elegance.

The author’s red-brown and weary face outshone the ring that glistened in the light of the ice-water that crackled in our glasses, filled by the waiter with whom he conversed in a very soft-spoken Papiamento (he remained soft-spoken, even when some years later he spoke to the camera crews of Telecuraçao, accusing the Dutch Kingdom of having forfeited progressive values.) His healthy demeanor showed not the faintest sign of Parkinsons, the disease that would begin eating his nerves in the future. It seemed as if he often walked across the slopes, beaches and the cunucu wilderness of his island. Calm exuded from him, the kind that only comes to the writer with discipline, but not just to a rigid writer: the calm that finds its way to the writer who already possesses a sense of humour, along with the habit of dancing now and then without the fear of losing intellectual standing.

He asked me about my writing. ‘Forget about literary journals, take your time on a novel, don’t get caught up in defending small opinion-pieces in newspapers.’ For years I tried to take his advice. Having failed to finish a novel, I ended up doing the opposite: pursuing the publication of columns, articles and poems. He said my plans for emigration to get into university in the Netherlands required caution: ‘University destroys many writers!’ he warned. It thrilled me to hear his counsel. It cut through all the nonsense, the moralistic and bureaucratic voices of official wisdom: the voice of the author is meant to do just that, to create silences by speaking, in a way that is contrary to the silence imposed by authoritarian systems.

Arion was engrossed in numerous political battles: one of them with an insincere businessman from Amsterdam who had set up a Peter Stuyvesant Café (named after one of the Dutch pirates who advanced the transatlantic slave-trade) before trying his hand as a museum-keeper, opening a ‘Black Holocaust Museum’ with an amateur historian’s interpretation of the history of slavery on Curaçao. The day before I had seen the tall sunburnt musculature of a giant off-duty Dutch marine quivering as he cried before an exhibit, on a guided tour with his equally-tall girlfriend through the corridors of the new museum. Apparently there were gross historical revisions and errors in the displays curated by the owner, a multi-millionaire former dentist, who had made his fortune by managing a chain of dental clinics in the Netherlands before moving to the tropics to become a historian, film-director, linguist and monument-keeper, in competition with writers like Arion, who did not seem daunted, except by the fact that a dentist wanted to make a cross-over into literature and the humanities. ‘A dentist? I can understand a doctor—Anton Chekhov was a physician, there is a connection with humans in the medical profession. But a dentist who in mid-life rediscovers himself as writer, linguist and historian…’ Arion pitied me for having wasted my money on the liberal-guilt show of a shakedown-artist. His squabbles with the monument-entrepreneur reminded me of his past battles with an Aruban hotel-owner and self-titled linguist, the newspaper magnate Jossy Mansur, who had sought to refute Arion’s linguistic theories that Papiamento, the creole language of Aruba, Curaçao and Bonaire, had an African syntactical structure.

Another issue that had lured Arion’s political attention was the attempt by companies and hotel-owners to privatise the beaches. Arion had helped to organise protests. He said it helped to re-read Kafka’s story ‘The Great Wall of China’ before taking a sledgehammer to the wall. With pride, he recounted his participation in the protests. He must have swung it like the baseball hero Orilio who appears in one of his poems.

Our talk of literature, life and politics was seamless. We shared jokes about Aruba, the neighbouring island, where I was born, where we met and where I first read him as required reading in high school. He was sceptical of an Aruban priest I admired, the Liberation Theologian who went into politics and who wanted to make Aruba a recognised overseas department of the Netherlands. ‘Where did the dream of independence go?’ the patriot asked me. He made me promise to plan a longer voyage to Curaçao next time, then we would see the marshes where sometimes the Curaçaoan deer, worthy of poetic comparison to an Antillean female, could be seen grazing. I would break the promise to revisit Curaçao during his lifetime. I had not wanted to. I had been incapable of imagining how this strong, lucid and vital man would succumb to illness within a few years.

Frank Martinus Arion, a literary landmark of the Caribbean island of Curaçao, died in September 2015. It was the end a life devoted to literature, to linguistics and to tropical patriotism. Though his death had been foreseeable after his long battle with Parkinson’s, his erasure by the terminal illness sent tremors through the archipelago of quiet islands that comprise the Dutch Antilles, officially self-governing Dutch colonies in the Caribbean. That part of the world named ‘the Dutch Caribbean’ extends from Curaçao to Aruba to St Martin and Surinam, lands Arion often visited. He is better know for his writing in Dutch, than for his works in the national language, such as Betris, a long poem-fairy-tale in Papiamento, telling the story of the seduction of a nun on the enchanted island Saba—clearly, the black nun whom the omniscient narrator follows is named after Dante’s Beatrice.

Heimwee en de Ruïne book coverAt the news of his death, eulogies and obituaries erupted from well-known choruses and the who’s-who of Dutch letters gave their bien-pensant bon mots. His readers in the Netherlands perhaps outnumbered those in the Caribbean, a fact he may have found disheartening, despite having chosen to write most of his oeuvre in the ex-coloniser’s language rather than his first language, Papiamento. In 2013, Homesickness and the Ruins (Heimwee en de ruïne), a retrospective of Arion’s poetry in Dutch was published in the Netherlands by the Amsterdam publisher Bezige Bij.

Arion is most often associated with his first major published novel, Double-Play (Dubbelspel), literally ‘Dominoes’, written at the turn of the 1970s, after he had attained a degree in Medieval Dutch from the university of Amsterdam. There he experienced the long absences of the equatorial sun (that most familiar and enduring oppressor of the Antilles, perhaps its only enduring oppressor.)

F.Martinus Arion Dubbelspe de Bezige Bij 1973The European metropolis was then electrified by the counter-cultural mood of the late 1960s. An Antillean brought up on the island (in the shadow of former slave-owners’ mansions and dungeons) might have been surprised at Europe’s rupture with the conservatism of the past. This was to be seen in the freedoms the Netherlands became notorious for. But more important to a black Antillean, was the ample Dutch support for the South African anti-Apartheid struggle, a cause Arion celebrates and identifies with in his more political poems.

He accepted the contradiction between anti-colonial ideology and the award given him by Queen Beatrix, ordaining him into a knighthood under the House of Orange Nassau. Surprisingly, very few Antillean artists have been struck by the paradox, the bizarre self-contradiction they engage in, of having exposed and criticised the Dutch kingdom’s past with the West India Company, while at the same time accepting titles from the Dutch monarchy, which during the 1970s and 1980s began to cast itself as the most progressive in Northern Europe. Years later, in 2014, Arion announced he was handing back the award of knighthood, in order to protest the ‘re-colonisation’ of his island.

Arion returned the title in response to the new right-wing Dutch government’s policy of exporting a Dutch police and judicial apparatus to Curaçao. The effects of the new hardline ‘war on drugs’ policies of the Dutch, assisting American regional monitoring in the Caribbean, served to retard the progress that had been made. When a Curaçaoan populist politician, Helmyn Wiels, was assassinated in 2013, the Dutch resident judge required a translator at the hearings. Arion believed in sovereignty and self-rule, and was a supporter of Wiels’ party ‘Pueblo Soberano’ (Sovereign Nation), attending meetings and rallies held by Wiels despite the writer’s ailing health. In an interview given to Tele-Curaçao at a protest he said, ‘I had much to thank the Dutch for, I lived for years in the Netherlands, and I wrote my novels in Dutch. I thought they had surpassed and come to regret colonialism towards a better understanding of history, I saw how many Dutch people had come forth to condemn South African apartheid. Now that the Dutch are imposing retro-colonialism, exporting police to come here and beat protesters I announce that I have returned the medal of knighthood.’

The history of the West India Company is not entirely forgotten in the long winters and the alienation experienced by emigrants and foreign students who retrace the post-colonial route to the Netherlands from the Antilles. One of Arion’s poems in Papiamento, ‘Na Mesa’ (‘At the table’) steps into the role of impatient parents awaiting their children at the Hato airport in Curaçao. ‘Batata! Bo cara a bira rondo di come batata!’ ‘Potatoes! Your head has grown fat and round from eating those potatoes!’ the mother-speaker in the poem seems to yell, disappointed as she sees her child, an Antillean student coming home for vacation from the Netherlands, accusing him of having forsaken funchi, the traditional sweet corn-meal eaten in Aruba, Curaçao and Venezuela.

His having switched from funchi to French fries and European junk-food is a sign of betrayal. The poem then alternates with the voice of the young person, that of the frustrated emigrant Arion himself, telling of the horrors of Europe (here are the first stanzas, followed by my translation):

NA MESA: Batata!
Su kara a bira rondo
di batata –
ma e tin gane
bisa un hende na Papiamentu
kon e ta gusta funchi

Friw no ta hasi nada
ma si bo kanta duru si
na Hulanda/nan ta kohebo sera –
i mes ke ku bo meste di permit
na Hulanda
hasta pa bo muri
No purba bai laman tampoko
pa bo skapa
pasobra e awa ta sjusji
i tin bestia fis den santu
ta wardabo sunchi –
pa drenta bo boca

His head grown round
from eating all those potatoes—
but he got the craving
to wax in Papiamento about
his fondness for Funchi

Cold doesn’t do nothing
But if you sing too loud, then,
you’re in big trouble
in Holland
even if they’re going to fuck you in prison
first, you need to have requested the permit
You won’t be safe from the fines raining onto your head from heaven
In Holland,
You could even Die— ‘

In the poem in Papiamento, Arion uses the phrase ‘kohebo bai sera’, which literally means ‘they come grab you and put you in prison,’ though the word ‘kohe’ also carries the implication of sex, the word oft-used for ‘fucking’: for this reason I translate the innuendo of the verse, putting nuance at risk.

In the North, fines rain down from the sky onto one’s head, the beach is cold, the sand is grayish and dirty, and one needs to fill in a form for nearly everything – even before being abused in prison, filling in the appropriate forms is a requirement in the Netherlands. Homesickness is an important theme in Arion’s work whether the writing is in Papiamento or in Dutch.

Arion had written collections of poems in both tongues. Now amidst Europe’s rewards, as with her oppressions, it was the forlorn island behind him that needed to be written, in that remembering that begins in the exile (whether self-imposed or forced) of the great writers from islands and from those societies that have the condition of ‘Antille’ or ‘ante’ – literally, ‘the last place before the ends of the world’, Antilla was used to designate the islands as such on the earliest European maps of the Americas.

Double-Play’s embroidery of multiple narratives revolves around the dominoes game, a staple of male culture on many Caribbean islands. Played by a group of men, the game pieces move under the barrage of multiple narratives, addled by drink. All the players in the novel are interwoven in each other’s intimate affairs, in the fragile secrecy of women: the game of dominoes is a metaphor for the games of adultery they play with one another’s wives. Dominoes (in Papiamento, Changá) has earnt the reputation of being a dangerous game. Dutch buccaneers were said to have lost the island of Puerto Rico to rival colonists, playing dominoes while drinking on a fortress rooftop on a hot midday. The dominoes game stood for more than the game of adultery behind the backs of the men who bang their glasses on the table, and who wear feathered fedora hats. In the Caribbean and Latin America, scandals revolving around adultery and passion—whether among the poor or amongst the elites—sooner lead to the morgue and to the police station than to the divorce court or the marriage counsellor’s office. For the characters, these intrigues are a way of riding the tremors of post-colonial history which were beginning to shake the Antilles in the 1970s.

Arion’s landmark Antillean-Dutch novel is set during that fateful colonial autumn when Dutch colonialism began to relinquish part of its power, allowing for Curaçaoan self-management within the auspiciously modernised Dutch Kingdom after the explosive revolt on Curaçao on May 30th 1969.

One of the characters, Manchi San Antonio, is a social-climber, hoping to emulate the minority of well-to-do whites on the island. Manchi believes in his own financial independence, and spends much time on status-symbols such as his car and constructing a maid’s room as the new addition to his house. He believes his success will secure the love of Solema, whom he accuses of being too backwards (for clinging to religion and the Catholic faith, which is for ‘hopeless, uneducated and under-developed black folks’ unlike the Protestant faith to which he has converted). But he also calls her ‘too forward’, because she believes in populist ideals ever since she returned from studying at university in the Netherlands.

Manchi’s idea of progress is to have a maidservant of his own colour, to speak Dutch and eventually play bridge instead of dominoes. He is the archetype of the rising ‘nouveau riche’ in the tropics and the Third World, which makes the novel politically incorrect, critical of the project of middle class ascendancy (such ascendancy is the pivot of most twenty-first-century ‘identity politics’ championed by progressives). Manchi is a doubter who scoffs at the notion of an independent Curaçao, repeating the beliefs of colonialism that ‘negroes can never have self-rule!’. ‘Too lazy and no sense of responsibility,’ he says, while at the same time certain that he is an exception to black laziness and as Curaçao changes, his hard work will be recognised by a big house. While standing fanatically for his own ascension, he can be murderous in attempting to secure his status symbols. Bubu Fil, the taxi driver fated to die, not unlike Marquez’ Santiago Nascar at the end of ‘Chronicle of a Death Foretold’, sees Manchi’s mansion looming from the incline above his small house. There is also the simple man Yanchi (not to be confused with Manchi) who is more of a poet. Yanchi steals Solema from Manchi though he can only offer her his love and a small house of his making. The slain cab-driver Bubu is named after Buchi Fil, from the legendary love story of the rebel slaves Buchi Fil and Mosa Nena, a folk-tale that inspired ballads and songs on the island, dating back to the first wave of slave-rebellions during the eighteenth century, led by the mutinous slave Tula.

In a way the tropical autumn of colonialism on Curaçao had been prophesied by a Curaçaoan novelist much earlier than Arion. In a quintessential book of the Netherlands-Antilles, Mijn Zuster de Negerin (My Sister the Negress), Curaçaoan writer and patriotic politician Cola Debrot (a descendant of Swiss Huguenot refugees to the Caribbean) tells of a Dutchman who, disaffected by the frigidity and prudery of European ladies, goes to the island colonies in search of black women. The pilgrim has a love affair with a woman who only later turns out to be his half-sister, born to the concubine of his Dutch merchant father. A scandalous author in his day, Debrot the politician strove against parties representing the economic subordination of the island—and was forced into exile.

Arion’s literary success in the late 1970s coincided with Dutch liberal discussions about releasing or reforming their colonial relation to the islands: the end of colonialism in Surinam, and a large sympathetic support — perhaps motivated by ‘liberal guilt’, rather than by compassion or solidarity — for the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa. When Double-Play won a Van der Hoogt literary award, Arion reputedly donated part of the prize-money to the ANC in South Africa (at the time when it was labelled a terrorist organisation by many European politicians, as it was by Margaret Thatcher, and eventually by David Cameron in the late 1980s.)

Arion located himself in the literary tradition of his predecessors. He was more likely to find camaraderie and identification with the writers and poets of other parts of the Caribbean — French Antilleans like Aimé Césaire, and Cuban, Puerto Rican and Haitian authors provided literary companions beyond the always-narrow world inhabited by former subjects of the Netherlands.

All too often, novelists have been surpassed by poets in expressing love, Arion the poet toppled Arion the novelist, though the results of that match have gone unannounced. His verse in Dutch and Papiamento remain obscured, again by the success of Double-Play, which has also overshadowed later fiction, including the ambitious multiple-narrative novel The Noble Savages, set between rural France and the French Caribbean. As a result, Curaçao’s major poet (whether writing in Dutch and Papiamento) is recognised for just one novel.

Some of his most political verses in his 1957 poetry collection Voices from Africa (Stemmen Uit Afrika), showing the influence of the Négritude black literary movement, and dedicated to the poet’s mother, are an attempt by Arion, a descendant of slaves who mixed with the indigenous and creole populations, to create a bridge built of history and sentiment. (They were reprinted in the retrospective collection Homesickness and the Ruin, (Heimwee en de Ruïne). The poems are full of humour, internal rhythm and eros: the poet’s liberation, a personal exodus that many a reader can enjoy, has the poet returning on a boat through the Congo to the fantasies and fabulist stories of long-ago African relatives. Such fantasy preserves one’s sanity and intelligence from the brunt of racism, of class and colonial society, and the legacy of European settlement that today manifests itself in the workings of the global financial system.

When I visited Arion on Curaçao, he confessed his lifelong ambition, far-removed from literary goals: to ‘live in the bush’ as a ‘bushman’ in the African or Surinamese wilderness, gathering fruits and living without modern equipment. This he considered to be his personal image of success, and he compared it to the dream of some of the Dutchmen he knew. Their contrasting image of success, according to Arion, was to disappear into a realm of ciphers and financial deals in the post-colonial business world. He explained the Dutch desire to disappear while expanding into the financial sphere of immaterial, economic power. The Dutch empire had for a short time rivalled the British, having captured New Amsterdam (to be re-christened New York) along with parts of Brazil, Surinam, Sri Lanka and South Africa, and most importantly Indonesia (an archipelago with the enormity of a continent) only to lose it all very quickly. The former coloniser’s way of mourning, or of escaping the act of mourning, was to become disembodied, to explode into the phantom-world of global finance capitalism, which knows no territory and therefore cedes no territories. I wrote his explanation down.

Some of Arion’s most powerful poems are, by no small coincidence, his most humorous and imaginative: such as when he expresses the life-long ambition to live as a ‘bushman’ deep in the African jungles – he walks along a river thumping with music and meets a beautiful woman he calls My Negress, (Mijn Negerin), who drinks from a particular pool in the jungle, which he always revisits to meet her. Arion’s verses possess both humour and a shameless beauty, whether describing sexual love or the darker passions. From my English translation of ‘My Negress’:

My long-ago Negress. My great one.
Thinly her hand caresses the drought of unknown dry breaths
And all is rhyme and rain again.
In the evening hours I spoke to her in my alien tongues
All that she said I jumbled up, confusing it with night.
She steps, edging round my chest
All over my plain white blouse.
Come, she says,
First you wash all the hate from your hands—
Now come and help me prepare this basket.
It is carrying songs.
A stone went into her basket as we stood in the small river,
Also rumba-balls, keyboards: everything.
Gently I lift the basket onto the top of her head.
Thanks, Negro, she tells me, and See you later.

Arion’s literature is fond of universal themes (love, death, disappointed rebellion, old age, migration and his home-island). His characters are drawn from all the social classes he interacted with, though the main concern of his political consciousness is a black Caribbean proletariat, the beauty of whose language he captures in poems like ‘Night-Illusion: 16 Love Sonnets,’ (Ilushon Di Anochi: 16 Sonet di Amor),in which a man in love speaks with rough frankness about a girl (my translation from Papiamento):

Same way a melody can enter a man, rip into him
Send him to shimmy and dance on his feet
Send him to lose his balance and his good name, make steam come off him
Your lips have done the same to me.
Almost dead from smoking and dancing, I need a guitar
Rip this motherfucker from where it stood in my soul.

Curaçao’s uprising and resistance against the colonial-aligned local business establishment, and against the Dutch marines on the island, which escalated on 30 May 1969 , set the stage for the island’s loss of its own colony of Aruba, and for the later success of the Aruban movement for semi-independence (Arubians led by the nationalist Betico Croes, also known as ‘The Liberator’, had long-clamoured for independence from Curaçao, while seeking to preserve and merely renovate its status of dependency with the Netherlands.) Aruba, the island where I was born and raised and where Arion often came to lecture and visit friends, was until 1986 officially the colony of Curaçao, making Aruba the colony-of-a-colony (perhaps calling it the son-of-a-colony fits the obscene condition better). Under the current legal definition, both islands are meant to be self-governing nations, despite the often self-contradictory and paradoxical manifestation of their self-governing status within a Dutch kingdom that has made a significant shift to the Right in recent years.

The catalysing event that set off the steps towards self-government on Curaçao was beyond any doubt the May 1969 uprising, in which the Curaçaoan labour-movements—the unions of the refinery-workers, mostly blacks and creoles—mobilised to revolt.

A state of emergency was declared after rioters set fire to the bankers’ mansions. Protestors had to face none other than the Dutch navy, dispatching its platoons from the local military base on the island, in order to quell the rebellion. Arion was an enthusiastic witness to the events of the rebellion, led by such charismatic politicians as Papa Godett and Stanley Browne. Deaths were astoundingly few –only two – though there were some near-fatal injuries. After these events, there was more recognition of the culture of the Antillean majority population, and Papiamento was no longer a forbidden language in the parliamentary hearings.

A novel Arion wrote after the May 30 events, again in Dutch, The Last Freedom (De Laatste Vrijheid) tells of the rebellion and his character’s sense of ecstasy after having participated in the arson and riots. The opstand heeft the neger mooi gemaakt, ‘The uprising has made the negro pretty,’ he says of one of his characters, who suddenly discovers a sense of masculine dignity and sexual power after having participated in the riots.

Arion was among the cultural and intellectual entourage that had sought a changed Surinam during the 1970s, only to be surprised by how president Desi Bouterse became twisted and oppressive after the withdrawal of Dutch colonial rule from the country. Because of the new dangerous face of Desi Bouterse, the writer left Paramaribo, accompanied by his wife, the Surinamese anthropologist Trudy Guda.

During one last reading tour in the Netherlands following the 2006 reprint of Double-Play, Arion spoke about his reasons for avoiding the European and Greek classical model of tragedy which echoes through much Caribbean literature: the existentialism of The Children of Sisyphus by Jamaican novelist Orlando Patterson, the melancholy cynical worlds of Naipaul, and Derek Walcott’s Hellenised St Lucian islanders. Among possible explanations for the echo of tragic forms in Caribbean literature, there is the scarcity of other valid literary models in French and English. Papiamento, a creole with close relations to the Afro-Portuguese spoken in Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau, is closer to Latin American culture, ensuring literary affiliations with the more joyous paganism of Latin Caribbean writers like Colombia’s Marquez, Cuba’s Nicolás Guillén or Puerto Rico’s Luis-Palés Matos.

Perhaps Arion’s most important political loyalty was his commitment to the Papiamento or Papiamentu language. Though he wrote his novels in Dutch, a good part of his poetic oeuvre were collections in Papiamento. As a linguist and promoter of the creole language, Arion (under his non-literary name Frank Ephraim Martinus) wrote the landmark linguistic study Kiss of a Slave. His dissertation is widely acknowledged as the most meticulously researched scientific investigation to date on the subject of creole languages. Kiss of a Slave makes the case for Papiamento’s grammar and syntax being of West African origins, despite the fact that the vocabulary of the language is comprised mostly of romance-language words.

Arion stood for ‘creole-ism’, the celebration of the many influences that make for a new and dynamic tropical civilization. He celebrated diverse elements of the white creole population of his island, such as the Sephardic Jewry. His lack of shame when writing about desire is to be found in the best of Caribbean literature. For example, the Nicaraguan poet Ruben Darío, who wrote of the ‘splendid, divine carnality of woman’, and of course more recently, Derek Walcott of St Lucia, who similarly casts aside petty-bourgeois inhibitions, writing of a flesh that surrounds and extends from the soul, returning to it always. Perhaps Arion stood closer in his affinities to Édouard Glissant’s celebration of Creolité – the manifesto-like insistence that the strength and uniqueness of the Caribbean is in its historic mixture of all nationalities and cultures – than to Amiri Baraka’s and Aimé Césaire’s notions of black essentialism.

Double-Play is currently being made into a film by the US filmmaker Ernest Dickerson, a former assistant to Spike Lee. Dickerson’s crew landed on the island just in time to meet Arion and to set up their five-year project, which is still in its initial phases after the death of the great Antillean writer. Curaçao is a tiny nation for which Arion expressed a profound love, above all in his poems. Whether an assistant of Spike Lee is capable of communicating a semblance of such love is an unlikely prospect, but we will have to wait to see.


After watching Double Play at the movie-house of Willemstad last April, my scepticism concerning the adaptation was confirmed. The film uses a musical score that all but omits Curaçaoan music: island people in the film only play Motown, funk and Cuban salsa, and occasionally African thumb-pianos heard among other non-Antillian presences. During the single scene towards the end that uses Antillean music, a dance party, the crowds keep dancing in the heavy downpour, as Dickerson quotes Dirty Dancing. In reality, people on these desert islands would run for cover at the slightest threat of a drizzle from the clouds. Characters in the film speak English with strange Indian, West African or Pakistani accents, totally unlike Curaçaoans, and the story is retold through a narrator who was non-existent in the novel: the grown-up son of the murdered Bubu Fil, a pristine, suit-and-tie poster-child of middle class ascension and business-like ways. The desert island of Curaçao appears in Dickerson’s film to be more like Jamaica or Mt Kilimanjaro, and Bubu Fil shows the symptoms of what postmodernity has pathologised as an illness, ‘sexual addiction’, which like alcoholism ‘rips families apart’. It is unfair to judge a film adaptation in relation to the setting of a literary work, but Curaçao seems to have been all but omitted from Double Play by a director who spent five years on the island. Martinus’ novel, positioned within the modernist tradition of doubting the game of middle-class ascendancy, was adapted into a film bearing the opposite message: a celebration of the entrepreneurial, individualist spirit.