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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Jazz, Perfume and
the Incident

Seno Gumira Ajidarma

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To purchase Jazz, Perfume and the Incident

Title: Jazz, Perfume and the Incident
Author: Seno Gumira Ajidarma
Genre: Novel
Written: 1996 (Eng. 2002)
Length: 183 pages
Original in: Indonesian
Availability: Jazz, Perfume and the Incident - US
Jazz, Perfume and the Incident - UK
Jazz, Perfume and the Incident - Canada
Jazz, Perfume and the Incident - India
  • Indonesian title: Jazz, Parfum dan Insiden
  • Translated and with an introduction by Gregory Harris

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Our Assessment:

B+ : creative, effective mix

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       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, 19 April 2015

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Jazz, Perfume and the Incident: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Indonesian author Seno Gumira Ajidarma was born in 1958.

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© 2015 the complete review

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