Jakarta is a short novel (just under 150 pages) that I read in one sitting, which likely influenced the feeling of having inhabited, for a few hours, a paranoid stranger’s most disturbing nightmare. While reading this postapocalyptic tale of despair, decay, and disorientation, I kept thinking about other, similar texts: Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, Rodrigo Fresan’s The Bottom of the Sky, Antoine Volodine’s Radiant Terminus, Ha Seong-nan’s Flowers of Mold. At times, even Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.
The one thing these texts have in common is an all-pervasive, heart-pounding, chest-constricting sense of absolute dread that rises up when the reader realizes that not all is as it seems. Something terrible lies just under the surface. I particularly love the delicious feeling of readerly vertigo in those books with unreliable narrators, where something suddenly shifts and you realize that you’ve been believing a potential pack of lies. The narrative ground drops out from under your feet and you’re left wondering how to proceed. So you read on.
Jakarta is narrated by an unnamed man who was once a member of Atlantika’s “Ź-Brigađe”—an extermination outfit tasked with rounding up and killing the rats that were believed to carry the latest in a string of deadly viruses. This brigade was also responsible for collecting the child corpses that littered the streets because of this virus (we never hear about any other kind of corpse). The narrator spends his time thinking back on his brigade work and focusing on the absurd and bizarre antics of his girlfriend Clara (with whom he shares an apartment). Apparently, Clara has found a way to commune with a stone she found during the latest outbreak, and each time she holds it and meditates on it, Clara seems to shrink while the stone seems to grow. We’re told at one point that it’s grown as large as a six-year-old child. The narrator believes that the stone mutes the outside world somehow, drawing all sound and sensation into it for … an unknown purpose.
It would seem the “Ź-Bug” is the latest in a long line of viruses (starting, of course, with “A”) that periodically visit Atlantika and wipe away any attempt by its human residents to pick up the pieces of civilization. The decades between outbreaks are seen as periods of serenity and stability, but the bug always returns, killing many of those who don’t have the means or ability to escape the deadly contagion. And yes, I’m well aware that I’m writing this review as the world is still grappling with our own fear-inducing virus. Jakarta, though, was published in English in 2019, or what some might call “the before times,” when global pandemics were the stuff of science fiction. What makes the “Ź-Bug” particularly ominous is that letter “Z”—why do the residents of Atlantika label each outbreak with a letter? And if this current outbreak is “Z,” are we asked to assume that this will be the last, insofar as humans will disappear from the city? No mention is made of what the next outbreak might be called: “A1-Bug”? “AA-Bug”?
And then there’s Vakapý. Think jai alai or Basque pelota, in which a ball is bounced off of a walled area using hand-held wicker equipment. Also, think fútbol if you want to even begin to approach the mania with which the populace of Atlantika embraces Vakapý. After all, the city is dying, the rats are taking over, and the narrator holds out not a single shred of hope for any kind of future. The narrator’s descriptions of the plays, players, gamblers (of which he is one), and general atmosphere of a Vakapý match make you think that Atlantika and the gambling den might as well exist on two separate planets. Outside is Atlantika, a crumbling, gutted, half-deserted city hobbling along because it doesn’t know what else to do; while inside is the needle that hooks you up to a digital interface in which betting happens at unbelievably high speeds. It is entertainment so pure that it isn’t even clear sometimes if the match is real or just the narrator’s hallucinations of all of the matches on which he’s bet. As he notes on page 37, “[b]y the time I was old enough to start going along to matches, the Department of Chaos and Gaming had set in motion the new Vakapý plan and the very first gaming stations were sending gamblers into ecstasies.” The Department of Chaos and Gaming—could a government agency sound more menacing than that?
Speaking of hallucinations, the narrator spends a lot of time thinking about his school days, particularly his friends and acquaintances: Zermeño, Helguera, Morgan. At times, he includes bits and pieces from Morgan’s private journals, which are themselves composed of clips from newspapers, quotations, and miscellaneous thoughts. We learn that Morgan and the narrator have had a curious relationship since they were children, with the latter idolizing and fearing the former, though at times we must wonder if they really are two different people. Morgan drifts in and out of the narrative like a ghost, like a substance that moves between Clara and the stone, or between a decaying corpse and the maggots that feed on it. Ultimately, “[i]n the end it doesn’t matter who is Morgan: we are all bound by so, so many commissures, all driven on by the grinding of teeth” (p. 74).
And since you’ve been wondering about this throughout the review: why “Jakarta”? The narrator mentions it, along with the other national capitals that his teacher, a forbidding nun, used to make them memorize. As the story advances, the narrator spends more time thinking about a Jakarta that doesn’t exist, as if it has become fairyland (or Vakapý match), such that I started thinking about “Jakarta” in terms of the dystopian Terry Gilliam film Brazil, where the name of the country doesn’t seem to have much of a connection to the film’s setting. Jakarta, Indonesia, isn’t a real place in Jakarta but a dream/hallucination of a real place that holds no meaning for the narrator. Even Atlantika is dissolving into the sea, though it still retains some of its substance. But, of course, no such city exists in our reality.
It’s also novels like this that make you want to stand up and applaud the translator, whoever and wherever that translator might be. The sonorous passages that sweep you inexorably on to the next page, the alliteration and at times dreamy poeticism of the language—it is something that must be wrestled with before being set down on paper in another language. So once again, I applaud you, Thomas Bunstead.
And you, Rodrigo Márquez Tizano, future nightmares notwithstanding.