Thursday, August 14, 2014

Seno Gumira Ajidarma, Jazz, Perfume & the Incident (1996)

What is "the Incident?"  I'll let the translator, Gregory Harris, describe it (I suppose this is one of those times where you'd say "trigger warning"):

On November 12, 1991, East Timorese protesting the ongoing military occupation of East Timor staged a large, public funeral procession at the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, the capital.  Although the protesters were peaceful, military and police forces attacked with deadly force, killing hundreds of people and wounding hundreds more. . . . A cover-up began almost immediately: the central government declared the massacre an "accident" created by armed provocateurs.  Meanwhile, the army destroyed most of the victims' bodies in order to frustrate an accurate count of the casualties.  It later claimed that only nineteen people had died. 

. . . 

The texts of several interviews with eyewitnesses . . . revealed a story completely different from the government line.  The interviewees spoke of atrocities: rapes, torture, and bizarre cruelties such as soldiers forcing the wounded protesters to drink buckets of blood and swallow the pieces of their own broken rosaries.

I quote at length to show just how fucked up the situation was.  The more I learn about Indonesia, the more I realize just how fraught the situation was and continues to be.  It's often hard to reconcile it with my lived experience there (though I would readily admit that the US is similarly problematic, albeit in somewhat different ways).

In any case, when Seno--a journalist and writer of a wide variety of texts--learned about this, he was naturally outraged and wanted to write about it--which, in Indonesia, is quite a dicey proposition, since, while (as far as I can tell) there's no formal "you can't write X, Y, or Z" guidelines, government censors will definitely get in your way if you try to publish anything deemed overly inflammatory.

But so he wrote Jazz, Perfume & the Incident (I know it's a pointless, trivial thing to say, but that lack of an Oxford comma there in the title bugs me every time).  Again, according to Harris, the fact that it was published by a small press outside of Jakarta meant that the censors were unlikely to pay a lot of attention to it.  A bold move nonetheless, for which Seno deserves all respect.

The story, such as it is, is simple: the narrator, a journalist, sits in his office reading accounts of the Incident.  These accounts are interspersed with his musings on jazz and his recollections of various women he's been involved with (and their perfumes), all with a light dusting of surrealism over top.  I would say it's closer to a sort of tone poem than to a novel.

The question is, how do all these disparate elements relate to one another?  It's definitely a little abstruse, but there are a number of ways we can understand it.  Jazz and perfume are both, at various points, posited as media of communication: even though they don't literally speak, they still convey information.  In a country like Indonesia, that isn't totally open and that certainly has its dark secrets, how we do this is an important topic.  Further, jazz is a music of improvisation, freedom, liberation--things that Seno favors and the government opposes.  Then, too, in a more general sense, we have music, romance, modernity, city life, et al, everything flashing by in a blur, and in the meantime--we still have atrocities.  I think that the dissonance between these things is intentional; that Seno plays them up to demonstrate the very fractures in Indonesian society that stand out to me, but maybe not so much to people who've lived their whole lives there (once again, it's just not easy for me to say--I wish I were still there so I could talk to people about these things).  Of course, in addition to everything else, the structure serves a practical purpose--to partially mask its political intent and thus make it seem less "dangerous"--but that's surely the least interesting way to think about it.

Of course, any "this means this and that is that" reading of the book is sure to be inadequate.  It's all sortsa polysemic.  It's allusive, mysterious, and probably important.


Post a Comment

<< Home