On one hand, the narrator of Rodrigo Marquez Tizano’s novel “Jakarta” is an eminently relatable type: He opens the novel thinking of his friends and remembering a particularly memorable teacher from his elementary school days. On the other hand, he lives in a chaotic society that can seem utterly alien at times.
Here’s one memory that’s particularly representative of how Tizano balances the quotidian with the alien (or, perhaps, the alienating): “Grandma wasn’t buried and I didn’t let anyone cremate her either,” the narrator writes a little over halfway through the novel. “I didn’t eat her remains. Nobody did. Though I never shared her faith, that would have been sacrilege, unacceptable.”
The whiplash that can come from reading a passage such as that recurs countless times throughout “Jakarta.” Sometimes, the narrator’s memories hark back to the coziness of countless stories of childhood. Sometimes, they serve as a reminder that, while the setting of this novel may seem familiar, it’s far removed from our own: beset by variations on a plague that recur every few decades, one where a bizarre sport called Vakapý distracts and obsesses much of the population, and where the aforementioned pandemic has bizarre effects on the biology of dogs. Sometimes there are references to places in our world: China is mentioned early on, and the city that gives the novel its title also plays a part.
Tizano’s story moves backward and forward through the narrator’s memories, possibly triggered by a bizarre stone that has an equally bizarre effect on his companion, Clara. There are elements of science fiction within the narrative, along with a smidgen of body horror. But this is the kind of novel where reality itself seems to be breaking down along with the narrative; readers of Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris novels or Samuel R. Delany’s phantasmagorical epic “Dhalgren” will find plenty to delight in here.
“Jakarta” is not always an easy book to read: It takes place in the shifting head space of a character living in a world whose geography — and whose very epistemology — seems to be in a state of constant flux. One could also make a comparison here to the fiction of Ben Marcus, which has a similar fixation on the ways in which language can be altered for bleak narrative effect. But the rewards that come from reading “Jakarta” are manifold, and relate to the new territory its author carves out. This is Tizano’s first novel, ably translated by Thomas Bunstead, but he has the boldness of someone who’s been at it for decades. It’s the beginning of a promising literary career.
Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn.
By: Rodrigo Marquez Tizano, translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead.
Publisher: Coffee House Press, 141 pages, $16.95.