Mrazek’s collection of oral histories evoke a by-gone age
In the 1990s Rudolf Mrazek did a very valuable thing: he interviewed dozens of elderly Indonesians about their memories of growing up during the Dutch colonial period. He has used these interviews to write an engaging book, somewhat obscurely titled A Certain Age. The volume’s subtitle, ‘Colonial Jakarta through the memories of its intellectuals’, is more informative than accurate, since many of those he interviewed did not grow up in Jakarta but in other places that they talk about. However, this does not matter very much, since Mrazek’s theme is not urban history but Indonesians’ encounters with modern life, a topic he has also developed in others of his books.
The book is divided into chapters that take the reader from the house to the wider world; as his subjects experienced this progress through their lives. A chapter entitled ‘The Walls’ deals mainly with the houses in which his interviewees grew up; ‘The Fences’ tracks the interaction between the house and the street; ‘The Classroom’ follows their experiences of learning and discipline at school and elsewhere (including exile in West Papua), and ‘The Window’ delves into memories of ways of seeing the world.
Mrazek’s informants are varied and include Javanese aristocrats, writers, academics, artists, political activists and Chinese Indonesians. Not all had privileged childhoods. What they have in common is that they are educated and have memories of encounters with the colonial world.
The book has numerous quotations from Mrazek’s elderly informants, many of an amusing kind. His reflections on their experiences are frequently insightful and entertaining. I particularly liked the chapter called ‘The Fences’ which contained many illustrations of the way that Indonesian urban houses were intimately linked to street life and the outside world, for instance through home production of batik textiles as well as through the ubiquitous peddlers. The book evokes very well a by-gone age.
Many readers, including myself, find Mrazek’s style of writing occasionally awkward and impenetrable. My advice would be to skip the too-frequent quotations from writers like Foucault, Adorno, Heidegger and others, intended apparently to show the wider significance of Indonesian experiences of modernity. Listen instead, as Mrazek certainly did, to the gentle, humorous and often wise and reflective voices of his Indonesian informants. Often recorded sitting on verandahs, against a background of street noise, their memories, but also their views at the end of their long lives, are worth hearing.
Rudolf Mrazek, A Certain Age: Colonial Jakarta through the Memories of its Intellectuals, Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.
Susan Blackburn is the author of a number of works on Indonesia including (under her former surname Abeyasekere) of Jakarta: A History, Singapore, Oxford University Press, 1988.