Jazz, Perfume and the Incident by Seno Gumira Ajidarma


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.

Jazz, Perfume and the Incident by Seno Gumira Ajidarma, Lontar Foundation 2013, ISBN 978-602-914-4222, paperback, 200 pages, dimensions 14 cm X 21 cm. Available for Rp150,000 at Periplus and Ganesha bookstores.

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