Domino Effect

James Ferguson discovers a clever investigation of life, the universe, and dominoes in Frank Martinus Arion's novel

What do all Caribbean islands have in common? A shared history, perhaps? A common taste in food? Beaches and sunshine? No, much more important than any of these is . . . dominoes.

There is doubtless some good historical reason for the Caribbean’s fanatical attachment to this game (the famous domino theory), but suffice it to say that the game is played with passion and intensity from Cuba to Trinidad. Fittingly, world championships are held here. The rules may vary slightly from island to island, but the basic game is the same throughout the region. First, it is a man’s game. No machismo intended, but it is simply a fact that men play dominoes (women probably have more important things to do). Second, it is accompanied by drink – rum, preferably. Third, the game is played as loudly as possible, with high-decibel conversation and explosive slapping-down of the pieces onto the table.

Visitors from Europe and North America may be surprised at the violence with which the game is played. Why don’t the other pieces fly into the air? The secret lies in using a metal- or formica-topped table for maximum noise impact.

Curaçao, formerly a Dutch colony, and still politically affiliated to the Netherlands, is no exception to the general domino rule, thereby proving that the game transcends secondary considerations like colonial history. Curaçaons are as mad about dominoes as Jamaicans or Barbadians. Indeed, if the Curaçaon writer Frank Martinus Arion is to be believed, a game of dominoes on that island may end not just with winners and losers, but with deaths, suicides, and wholesale pandemonium.

Martinus Arion’s novel is ostensibly about a Sunday domino game played by four men in a small Curaçao village. Nothing more relaxing, you might think, than the weekly meeting of four friends in the shade of the tamarind tree. But these are not four ordinary friends. True, they have been playing a regular game for a long time, but this does not mean they like each other. The narrator introduces the game ominously:

People there will remember that until recently four men in this neighbourhood played a game of dominoes every Sunday afternoon at the house of one of them, Bubu Fiel. They always started the game at about one o’clock, after their sopi di mondongo, or tripe soup, the typical Sunday lunch dish of the inhabitants of Curaçao. They stopped at about six o’clock, when dusk, and shortly afterwards inexorable darkness, fell.

The players come from different social classes. Manchi Sanantonio is a bailiff, a pompous, pretentious type, who would love to be a judge but is too lazy to do the necessary studying. He lives in the smartest house in the area, and is unhappily married to the beautiful Solema, a teacher of radical views and adulterous instincts. His domino partner is Bubu Fiel, an easy-going taxi driver who lives in squalor, and frequents the local brothel. His long-suffering wife, Nora, faces an everyday struggle to find money for food and other essentials. It is at his ramshackle house that the game takes place, with Nora filling the men’s glasses from time to time.

These two men’s opponents are unmarried, but by a neat coincidence are having affairs with Manchi and Bubu’s wives. Janchi Pau, an unfulfilled character of no particular occupation, lives in an unfinished and overgrown house near Manchi. He is having an affair with Solema. Nicolas Chamon, another drifter, with a criminal conviction for assault, is at the same time enjoying a liaison with Nora, whom he pays occasionally. Neither of the two cuckolds knows what’s going on.

This symmetrical infidelity makes for an interesting game of dominoes, in which the players’ conversation skirts around questions of sex, marriage, and the rights of a wronged husband, without ever touching on the truth. The game also holds in suspense Solema’s momentous decision to leave Manchi and move in with Janchi (she watches the men from a distance, her bags packed). Nora, meanwhile, is desperate to speak to Nicolas alone, as she needs some money to buy her son a pair of shoes. He, for his part, has decided to end the liaison.

So it is that this marathon game of dominoes takes place in an atmosphere of guilt, growing suspicion, and scarcely veiled hostility. And, to make things worse, the two adulterers are trouncing the two cuckolds, their easy victory in the game somehow paralleling their upper hand in the complicated emotional relationships. To this unstable chemistry, Martinus Arion adds further fuel: political arguments, social snobbery, jealousies of every sort. The smug Manchi tries to patronise the others, while the hung-over Bubu Fiel gradually senses that something is going on between Nicolas and his wife.

All the while, Janchi and Nicolas are winning, until they have reached the unprecedented score of ten games to nil. This has never been recorded before, and word spreads quickly throughout the island. Suddenly, the quiet game of dominoes is headline news; radio reporters and TV crews descend on Bubu Fiel’s house to cover this astonishingly one-sided outcome.

It is at this point that events reach a crescendo, with tragic consequences. Their emotions heated by the extraordinary result, and by the ensuing media pandemonium, the four men face their immediate emotional crises. Bubu Fiel confronts Nicolas Chamon; a struggle follows and Bubu Fiel is fatally stabbed. Manchi, meanwhile, returns home to discover that Solema has left. Unable to stand the humiliation, he shoots himself.

Of the three domino players, then, only Janchi Pau emerges unscathed (Nicolas is arrested, and faces life imprisonment). With his now-unattached lover Solema, he represents a positive future, for during the game he has become increasingly convinced that he must break away from his stultifying apathy and start a new enterprise, building furniture from the local wabi wood. His victory over the snobbish Manchi (reinforced by his taking of his wife) is hence a victory against what Martinus Arion portrays as a rotten, reactionary social order, where the Dutch take the best jobs and Curaçaons do little to help themselves.

And this system, we are prompted to believe, is particularly rotten because it is so male-dominated. The idle, rum-swilling, complacent men stand in conspicuous contrast to the hard-working and down-to-earth Nora and the intellectual Solema. The dominoes débacle is, in a sense, the collapse of macho values, the cruel revelation of a sort of metaphorical impotence on the part of the losers.

First published in Dutch in 1973, this 1998 translation opens another dimension of Caribbean literary creativity to English-language readers. A cleverly constructed novel, full of sharp social observation and convincing characterisation, it tells us a good deal about Curaçao, about men, and about the darkness that lurks behind the seemingly innocent pastime of dominoes.