Seno Gumira Ajidarma combines the surreal and the actual in a way that forever changed Indonesian literature and political discourse

Seno Gumira Ajidarma, Jazz, Perfume and the Incident, Trans. by Gregory Harris. Lontar Foundation 2013. [1996.]

Jazz, Perfume & the Incident, by Seno Gumira Ajidarma, was first published in Indonesian in 1996. It is the first major Indonesian literary work to deal critically with the horror of life under military occupation in East Timor. This novel, which defied Indonesia’s regime of censorship, is made available in its pages, the heavily censored reality that journalists dared not reported. In this novel, the author combines the surreal and the actual way that forever changed Indonesian literature and political discourse. Call it fact or call it fiction: Jazz, Perfume & the Incident offers a penetrating look at both Indonesian officialdom and the desires of young Indonesians.

In Jakarta's gleaming center a man and a woman watch each other from adjoining skyscrapers. The man, a journalist, has on his desk reports he doesn't dare publish of a massacre in East Timor. He contemplates the demands of truth and confronts the split in his world between a sophisticated urban life where the women waft by in signature perfumes, and the primitive oppression of Indonesia's army state in East Timor. Only jazz mediates. A music of raw emotion and powerful refinement, urbane yet born in the growl and moan of generations of slaves, jazz is not literal, but absolutely true. So too this novel, which defied Indonesia's regime of censorship and made available, in its pages, the heavily censored reality that journalists dared not report. In Jazz, Perfume and the Incident, Seno Gumira Ajidarma combines the surreal and the actual in a way that forever changed Indonesian literature and political discourse.

The three subjects around which Jazz, Perfume and the Incident is constructed are, indeed, those of the title. If the first two are, more or less, universal and could easily be similarly woven into many novels situated elsewhere, the third is very much site- and era-specific (albeit, in its basics, far too familiar from countless examples elsewhere as well). 
       The incident refers to what is known as the Dili Incident (or also the Santa Cruz or Dili massacre) of 12 November 1991, in the then-still Indonesian province of East Timor (now the independent state of Timor-Leste). The former Portuguese colony had been occupied by Indonesia in 1975, shortly after the Portuguese left, and it was controversially annexed; essentially, it remained under military rule in the years of Indonesian occupation. The Dili Incident involved a funeral procession protest of several thousand to the Santa Cruz cemetery in the capital city, which ended in a large-scale slaughter by the Indonesian authorities.
       Translator Gregory Harris' introduction helpfully provides the necessary background -- not only to the Incident itself, which is then also well-covered in the novel itself, but more importantly to the context, and the context in which Ajidarma wrote this novel. There were immediate efforts at a cover-up of the Incident by the Indonesian government -- including the claim that only fifteen people were killed -- but these were barely credible. International outrage and pressure helped make it impossible to completely bury the story -- but in Indonesia itself the media had to tread very carefully; it was impossible to write openly about these events (or indeed most dealing with the military) there.
       Translator Harris notes he was surprised to come across this novel, shortly after its 1996 publication, wondering how the author (and the publisher) dared to present these: "incendiary truths about their own government and military" to the Indonesian public. He notes that Ajidarma:

relied on the fact that Indonesia's official censors didn't pay much attention to literary titles, particularly those by a young author being published by a small press outside the capital. And he also had what the Javanese call, in English, "lipstick" or gloss," in this instance a superficial cover-up of jazz and perfume.
       As far as the Incident goes, Jazz, Perfume and the Incident is in fact a documentary novel, presenting verbatim excerpts from eyewitness accounts and reports of what happened, as collected by Jakarta Jakarta magazine (for which the author worked) as well as Amnesty International. Their immediacy is striking; as the narrator notes:
You see news about war in the daily papers and on TV, but hearing news that's already been filtered and cleaned up is completely different from reading the raw accounts.
       The narrator returns repeatedly to these accounts, reading them in his office. They have a prominent place in the novel, yet the narrator does not harp on them, either, presenting them in short bursts, with longer interludes then covering other material.
       In a section where he is musing on jazz -- one of his other preoccupations -- he notes, in an observation equally applicable to his treatment of the Incident-material:

I'm just a listener. Just a reader. All I can do is quote from here and there.
       There's barely any commentary on the substance of the reports he's reading -- the testimonies speak for themselves -- and what reactions he does describe are more physical (exhaustion, for example) than analytical. That he's handling incendiary material isn't in doubt, but the only ominous warning comes second-hand, and silently, on his pager:
Someone called. Said don't print the piece on the people who got shot.
       Davis notes that on the original Indonesian edition there were some verses printed on the back cover, and these are presented in the English edition at the beginning of the novel, as a sort of second epigraph, a defining summing up of sorts:
Call it fact if you will, 
Call it fiction, if you prefer 
-- it's just a metropolitan novel
       Much of the novel is factual: aside from the documentary presentation of the Dili Incident the narrator also riffs on jazz -- almost Geoff Dyer-like -- and even treats the perfume-angle in occasionally documentary manner (this is the rare novel that extensively references and quotes from the biography Obsession: The Lives and Times of Calvin Klein). Yet Ajidarma does indeed fashion a 'metropolitan novel' out of -- and beyond -- the material.
       The narrator begins his account in his offices on the twentieth floor of a Jakarta skyscraper. "Life flows along the streets" below, but the narrator sits at a remove. He receives a telephone call -- a connection, but, even for all the personal revelations, impersonal in not being face-to-face. It's twilight, too -- grandiose and beautiful, but a more than symbolic end-of-day setting.
       The narrative shifts mainly between his reading of Incident-reports, his riffs on jazz -- mentions of what he's listening to and memories of what he's heard, and the musicians behind it --, and interactions with women. The narrator is perfume-obsessed, curious about and commenting on the scents various women (and some men) wear, seeing it as meaningful and revealing personal expression. Despite often intimate conversation and disclosures, there's a constant sense of fundamental separation: relationships are kept at some remove. Separate chapters also address other forms of intimate distance: the story of the high-life of an incredibly wealthy lesbian, forays into the world of male homosexual activity
       The prevailing sense is that of what he describes as the "raw quality to jazz, a 'wounded-ness'". Yet he also sees jazz's essence to be: "the emancipation of the spirit", and in ranging across his many subjects seems to be seeking that throughout.
       The novel opens with the mention: "I'm writing a letter -- the contents of which I'll relate later on", and it's only in the final chapter that it crops up again, the last chapter presented as epilogue, a final documentary (though fictional) piece, the letter itself. It's a fitting closing: not journalism, a letter is personal and intimate -- yet by its nature also marks the separation between writer and reader, unbridgeable -- much as the eyewitness testimonies of the Incident can be read, and touch and affect a reader, but the experience remains fundamentally separate.
       In not dwelling solely on the Dili Incident -- fictionalized here only to the extent that East Timor is called 'Gidgid' and Dili 'Ningi' (there's only so red you want your flags to be when publishing this sort of thing, presumably) -- Ajidarma all the more effectively portrays the modern condition. The documentary evidence provides first-hand accounts of the horror, but in framing that within a larger narrative, where the narrator may be preoccupied with what he's read but also focuses on other, closer-at-hand matters such as the distractions of jazz and women, mirrors our own experience of trying to come to terms with the daily horrors we read about second- and third-hand, in newspaper and internet reports, or see on television. From his twentieth-floor (not-quite-ivory-tower-)perch, the narrator of this 'metropolitan novel' is a modern urbanite, trying to deal with the disparate realities around him -- summed up in his letter, even as that provides no clear answers for him or for us.
       A curious, admirable, and quite impressive piece of work. - M.A.Orthofer

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. - 

Ostensibly from its title you’d think this is a book of light-hearted short stories, but this is decidedly not the case. The unorthodox structure of this supposedly cosmopolitan novel is a disguise. The searing emotional thrust of Jazz, Perfume & The Incident centers around one of the most shameful episodes in Indonesia’s modern history – the infamous massacre of civilians in Dili, the capital of East Timor. Euphemistically known as The Dili Incident, you need a strong stomach to read the eight depressing chapters entitled “Report on the Incident” nos. 1, 2, 3, etc.
On 12 November 1991, army and police forces attacked with deadly force men, women and children who were protesting the ongoing brutal military occupation of East Timor. Although the protesters were peaceful, carrying only flowers and flags of the Vatican in a funeral procession to the Santa Cruz cemetery, the military opened fire for 10 minutes on several columns of 2000 people. Based on eyewitness accounts from international journalists, parents, brothers and friends of those killed, the injured were pounded with rocks and boards with nails in them, soldiers cut off ears, forced people to drink the blood of the dead. After truckloads of bodies were hauled off, firemen hosed off pools of blood from the streets. Television footage of the massacre sparked moral outrage around the world.

For months after the massacre the military used gangs of thugs to terrorize, intimidate and harass the population with arbitrary arrest, extra-judicial killings, disappearances, tapping phone lines and putting suspects under constant surveillance. Police-backed militias carried out vigilante raids, subjected family members of victims to electric shock, threatened torture against clergy. The book recounts how unmarried female relatives of suspects were stripped naked, beaten and raped, how soldiers fired on groups of people working in their fields.
At the time, Ajidarma was a short story writer, poet and managing editor of Jakarta-Jakarta, a glossy urban-focused lifestyle magazine. Overwhelmed by the intensity of the visceral reports coming out of East Timor, and recognizing his own government’s clumsy and blatant cover-up, he published several incendiary interviews with witnesses of the massacre, a very risky business in those days as news of the repressive occupation of Indonesia’s new 27th province had long been suppressed and distorted in the mainstream press.
The superb well-written introduction by the book’s translator Gregory Harris is essential to understanding the historical background of the event and placing the “reports” in the context of the times. It is in fact a short essay on the censorship practices of the militaristic Suharto regime in which much of the content of newspapers and magazines were regularly banned or news organizations outright shut down. In January 1992, fearing that his articles about “The Incident” would lead to a government crackdown on its magazine empire, the parent media company Garmedia fired Ajidarma. His case became a cause celebre for human rights activists.
Jazz, Perfume and the Incident contains the actual verbatim transcripts of people who had suffered or witnessed firsthand the torture, bizarre cruelties and shootings of at least 250 people. Knowing that Indonesia’s official censors paid little attention to literary titles published by small obscure presses outside the capital, Ajidarma used innocuous stories of jazz and perfume interlacing the book as a camouflage, what the Javanese call “lipstick,” to cover up the main gist of what the main theme was really about.
Ajidarma’s writing on the subjects of jazz and perfume are passionate, learned and elegantly written. With a backdrop of smoky nightclubs and flamboyant dissolute characters, the jazz vignettes feel like they took place in New York or Paris. He writes knowledgeably about blues singers, how the use of a mute shaped the trumpet playing styles of Louis Armstrong and Wynton Marsalis, and affectionately portrays Robert Johnson, John Coltrane and Miles Davis as immortal musical talents.
Ajidarma answers instinctively the intangible question “What is jazz?” by going back to the genre’s earliest roots, its traditions, influences, personalities, discographies, albums and films. He quotes from scholarly works on jazz to make his points. Like life itself, he explains that the improvisation and wounded-ness inherent in Jazz creates its own surprises - we never know where it will lead us. Jazz is an honest music, the sound of pure silence screaming, its raw quality an emancipation of the spirit. The strident, cracked, shrill voice of a trumpet echoes life’s blows. The writer is equally voluble on sultry women and intoxicating perfumes which he regards with equal parts wonder and perplexity.
What is unusual is the placement – fiction and non-fiction, the trivial and the tragic, the fanciful and hard-nosed reportage. Horrific accounts of a bloody massacre are interspersed among tales of bygone loves, favorite jazz recordings and signature exotic perfumes. This strange juxtaposition of seemingly dissimilar subjects is surprisingly effective. The reader bonds to the narrative, motivated to read on. Each installment of different phases of a shocking atrocity serve as a moral counterweight to the glitter and conspicuous consumption of Indonesia’s boom-time over-the-top capital.
This writer’s prose uses an evocative, original and stylish use of language - like the sound of jazz itself. There’s also a curmudgeonly and politically-incorrect quality to his writing, a refreshing respite from the usually polite, indirect and non-confrontational Indonesian manner of speech. He questions all. Nothing is sacred.
This jarring book reveals a heavily censored reality that journalists during the repressive Suharto regime dared not report, the dichotomy between a sophisticated urban life where women waft by in expensive perfumes and the simultaneous existence of a murderous army state in East Timor. Ajidarma combines the surreal and the actual in a way that stirs the blood. -


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