Seno Gumira Ajidarma — Jazz, Perfume and the Incident (1996)

Setting: 1990s Jakarta during a brutal crackdown on protests in East Timor.

What it’s about: The author is a Jakarta journalist fired for trying to report atrocities in East Timor. He calls this a “metropolitan” novel, set in a glamorous city, where a journalist in a lonely skyscraper reads report of primitive violence occurring elsewhere — and tries to work up the courage to publish them.

The reports themselves are real, raw and brutal, interspersed between the story told in a different font, almost like the reporter sneaking them out to the public (as was the case when the book was published in 1996). These different chapters repeat in order — one on jazz, one an encounter with a mysterious woman, one with reports of the “incident”.

Why you should read it: If you like jazz. It feels like a dark 1980s detective movie, something like Bladerunner or ‘Round Midnight’ (a movie referenced in the book), with bursts of corny saxophone music ripping through the narrative.

A man on the sidewalk, in a pool of yellow mercury light, plays the saxophone…He plays the sax while walking, slowly….

A scene from Round Midnight

Listen to the sound of the wailing and moaning — sometimes like a rumble, then a shriek, then finally subsiding into something like a stifled whisper….sending forth sounds of forlorn sorrow that creep into the night air, merge into its phosphorescent yellow glow. How well sounds mirror feelings. I hear a story about the night, about obscurity and darkness, where wounded souls, lonely and abandoned, moan and roar, whine and rage, grumble and curse, gibber and shriek. I hear the saxophone, strident and shrill, broadcasting the echoes of fate’s blows.”

You’ll like this if you liked: Detective stories where the hero investigates a common crime only to uncover a wider political scandal. Raymond Chandler. Any Humphrey Bogart movie.

Rating: *

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