Review: Everything, nothing is real in ‘Jakarta’

Rodrigo Márquez Tizano examines memory and meaning in his novel “Jakarta.”
(Valentina Siniego Benenati)

Rodrigo Márquez Tizano’s debut novel, “Jakarta,” is a journal of the plague years. Or, more accurately, of the post-plague years, although such eras here are one and the same. Set in a small, imaginary country in Latin America, the book is a kaleidoscopic take on love and loss and longing, written in a voice that is sharp and cynical yet somehow without despair.

“In those days we still believed we deserved to be lucky, and that one day we surely would be,” recalls Tizano’s unnamed narrator, a gamer of sorts who once worked on a crew tagging bodies ravaged by a deadly virus, and now lives with his girlfriend Clara, who is either a mystic or in the process of losing her mind. He is referring to the present as much as to the past.

Throughout “Jakarta,” chronologies overlap and narratives tumble together like petals falling. Tizano offers histories both personal and social, until we realize that there is no space between them — that what happens in (or to) our countries happens to us, as well. The landscape of the novel was once a lot like that which we inhabit, which means its degradation, its disintegration, might also be a state we someday share. What happens when the world comes to an end and we continue living? Such a question occupies the center of this deft and deeply rendered work.

Tizano grew up in Mexico City, and has been the editor of Vice in Mexico and Argentina. But the allegory he spins is not so narrowly defined. Rather, “Jakarta” is an examination of memory and meaning, played out against a social order that has essentially collapsed. This is the result of contagion; Atlantika, the fictional city in which the book takes place, has suffered an ongoing series of epidemics that stretch back longer than anyone can recollect.

To pacify the population, the authorities have usurped a sport called Vakapy (think jai alai played by robots) and made it an addictive betting craze. Adherents watch a dozen matches simultaneously, analyzing data, making wagers. Games go on for days. “The smallest movement,” Tizano tells us, “down to the flick of a player’s wrist, can generate a further series of digits that affect the bets, and can, in turn, themselves be betted on.”


Bayrol Jimenez/Coffee House Press
(Bayrol Jimenez/Coffee House Press)

That’s a vivid piece of social satire, distraction rewired through the lens of oppression as a mechanism of control. That we recognize ourselves in it is entirely the point. The same holds true for Atlantika’s bureaucracies: Vakapy is administered by the Department of Chaos and Gaming, while enormous digital displays have been erected across the city by the Department of Communication and Fun.

Despite the pointedness, however, gaming and bureaucracy are easy targets, and Tizano has more complicated concerns. Such as: What is the nature of survival? And: How do we know who we are if we cannot remember who we were? “[M]angled memories,” his narrator suggests, “are sure to be the death of anyone.” Here, again, he turns his gaze as much on us as on himself.

“[I]t’s impossible to establish an end,” he continues, “for the same reason it’s impossible to know the nature of the beginning.” This is the way it is, in other words, because it has always been the way it is. Time is flat, or it is a circle. “[T]he fact that we survived the epidemics,” Tizano elaborates, “suggests that we are condemned to stick around.”

What Tizano is describing is life: “a tale,” to borrow from Shakespeare, “Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing.” A similar sensibility infuses “Jakarta.” It is a work of art that is not only aware of its own artifice but also uses that to seek out consequence or connection, even as it casts those constructs into doubt.

The narrator exists in a fluid present: beset by memories of both childhood (he was raised by his grandmother and attended parochial school) and pestilence. He worries about Clara, who, in their room, communes with a stone that projects visions in three dimensions. What is real? The answer is nothing … and everything.

Tizano makes the point explicit when he, or his narrator, addresses the invention implicit in every narrative. “And is there, in the end, any difference?” he wonders. “Because as it happens this country isn’t real, nor has it ever been: it is a thing barely intuited, like a compilation of familiar imprecisions, like those that filter down to us through dreams.” Familiar imprecisions, yes, like any novel; the trick of fiction, if you will. “Which of the two do we inhabit,” Tizano writes, contrasting reality and imagination, “and when did we cross the line?”

Ultimately, this brings us to Jakarta, which for much of the book functions as a fantasy before assuming a more nuanced presence in the end. I don’t want to give too much away, for one of the pleasures of “Jakarta” is the way it continually upends our expectations. How much takes place in the narrator’s head and how much in the world? But that’s part of the point here also, that the environments we inhabit are largely self-created: a matter of language rather than of “spatiality.”

Jakarta, then, exists first as a word and not a place, a reminder of the narrator’s school days, when he and his classmates were quizzed on countries and their capitals. As the novel progresses, it becomes more of a dreamscape, not unlike the narrative itself. Language, Tizano insists, is a labyrinth, which, in turn, is “nothing but a way of seeing, just as seeing is a way of being in the world.”

Seeing as a way of being? It sounds so simple, but what he’s saying, really, is that, for characters and readers, a novel is a place where we may be lost and found. “The golden city, with its pavilions and watchtowers, what has become of it?” Tizano’s narrator wonders. “I didn’t actually know I was coming back at all.”


By Rodrigo Márquez Tizano

Translated from Spanish by Thomas Bunstead

Coffee House Press: 142 pp, $16.95 paper

Ulin is a former Times book editor and book critic.