Before we parted ways in the courtyard of the Gberia Fotombu Mosque, an Arab traveler who had befriended me over the course of more than 1001 nights gave me the following advice: “Remember, my friend, nothing is so dangerous as stories that have you believe good always triumphs over evil, as they will make you dim-witted and cruel.”
He entered the mosque and I continued walking toward Makeni. Recalling how he’d never run out of tales the entire time we’d spent together there in Sierra Leone, I believed his words held some truth. But later, in the hull of a minecart heading to Pepel, I began to wonder if he’d fed me empty digressions. As we all know, all stories that human beings tell leave us with an instructive message so that the next generation will continue to believe that evil is evil without having to go to the trouble of bothering themselves over moral dilemmas. And who’s daft enough to write about the rise of evil? If such people exist, their stories wouldn’t last very long at all.
I was wrong. One afternoon, a few years after saying farewell to that storyteller, I met an eighteen-year-old girl who reminded me of his message. She began her anecdote with a simple question: “Have you ever heard of the crime of March 4th?”
Indonesia is familiar with dates tied to tragedies: May 12, four students killed; June 28, the Mandor Affair; September 12, the Tanjung Priok Massacre; October 22, a pilot in training crashes a fighter jet into the National Monument; and lastly, the most widely known date, debated to no end: the 30th of September Movement, 1965. Or the ill-fated day humanity will never forget: December 27, the Day of Conception. Though I was well aware of all these stories, the peculiar crime of March 4th was new to me.
The girl heard about the March 4th Incident from her mother, who’d in turn heard it from her grandmother. Recounting the tale to new acquaintances was also a family tradition, she told me. Unfortunately, a robot server interrupted her by spilling coffee on her dress and she went to the restroom to wash out the stain. We were at a little café at Pantai Margonda in the Depok neighborhood of Jakarta. The manager apologized. Please understand, this sort of thing tends to happen, the robot’s imported, second-hand. When my new friend returned to her seat, the city alarm sounded and the chip inserted into the back of my right hand blinked.
“I’ll finish another time,” she said. “I have to get back to work.”
“There might not be another time.” I asked if I could meet her mother.
“You’re really curious, aren’t you?” Without waiting for me to respond, she placed a finger to her lips and then pressed a glowing pink symbol on her neck.
After a momentary silence, she spoke. “I just told Mom. She says you can come over this afternoon.”
She flicked her wrist in the air as she announced the address, and instantly a virtual screen the size of Paul Klee’s Cat and Bird stretched out in front of us. A red dot flashed above the location. Plucking the screen from the air, she held out her hand to pass the screen over to me, but I hadn’t installed the necessary update in my body yet. “Could you sketch it out instead?”
After grumbling and lecturing me about the importance of technology for the elderly, she pulled a 3D-pen from her pocket to create a detailed map, exactly like the one on the screen, and then handed me the mini diorama. “How about you draw it on paper?” I said. “That way, I can keep it in my wallet. I won’t lose it.”
More grumbling as she grabbed a standard pen and napkin, then wrote out the directions. “Take this street here. Look for the green house.”
Notes in hand, I made my way to the address. Though the girl’s mom had died five years earlier, her consciousness had been uploaded into a robot body with a tube-shaped head and a torso cluttered with silly refrigerator magnets—inside, red and blue cables were hooked up to a fresh brain soaking in fluid. The creature emitted sounds through mouth-like speakers. Her iron hands each looked like the arm of a desk lamp, and she rolled about on tank treads.
The humanoid disclosed what she knew about the incident. When I mentioned the name Gaspar, she seemed upset; there was a glitch in her voice and a quivering of grey matter. I began to suspect that the woman and Gaspar had once been connected. I gathered leads for a few other people to talk to, including a patient at Marzuki Mahdi Hospital in Bogor.
This man was not like the other patients. He was elderly and refused to wear the required white hospital gown. Instead, he had donned a gray button-down and a hat that he purportedly only removed in the shower. His front teeth were chipped, and he insisted on telling me why before I asked a single question. The man had been deemed perfectly healthy thirty years earlier, but he’d refused to leave the hospital because, as we all know, the Conception Program sometimes caused trauma. According to his doctor, the hospital let him stay on the condition that he work for room and board. He was strong, despite his age. He owned a few dozen copies of the book Soeharto: My Ideas, Speeches, and Actions, each volume riddled with marginalia. The patient gave me the recording of an interview he’d conducted with a witness of the March 4th Incident. He’d been waiting a long time for someone like me to come along, he said.
I’m aware that the adventures of Gaspar and his friends might seem odd to you. The city where the incident took place is now underwater, the modes of transportation that appear throughout may be difficult to imagine, and the outdated terms I employ seem primitive and silly today. Nevertheless, the emotions at the heart of the story—fear, anxiety, sadness—persist across time, as do our distinctions between good and bad, which, having remained unquestioned, still carry about them that same absolute quality. It appears that the Conception Program was created in vain; human beings will always find a way to be fools. I believe it’s important that my contemporaries hear Gaspar’s story, so that we do not continue to be so dim-witted and cruel.
Armed with interviews from dozens of sources and a worn-out copy of My Days, I’ve strung together the story of Gaspar into twenty-two chapters. The volume you hold in your hands now has a mere eight, but that should suffice to grasp the essence of Gaspar’s story and apply it today, so that you can find a way to change things (surely, you know what I’m referring to). I’ve attached transcripts of an interview with a witness to the events, even though some sections of audio—the openings and a few brief segments in the middle of the conversations—are damaged. My rationale is that you might find important messages in these documents, or at least I believe you can. And, of course, discovering them on your own, without my help, will be more meaningful.
One of my sources compared Gaspar to a little centipede that lives in your ear: you can feel its tiny legs perpetually awriggle, hear its constant whispers. At first, I thought the comparison was hyperbolic—that is, until my own investigation into Gaspar required me to descend deep into his circle of hell. Assuming Gaspar’s perspective left me disgusted with myself.
Allow me to conclude my introduction with a message from the aforementioned patient: each year, on the fourth of March, symbols of truth lose their meaning, the desires buried within us rise to the surface, and those clever enough to recognize what’s happening strike a match and toss it into whatever might look beautiful ablaze.
Excerpted from 24 Hours with Gaspar by Sabda Armandio. Copyright © 2017 by Sabda Armandio. Translation copyright © 2023 by Lara Norgaard. By arrangement with Seagull Books.