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Colonial Jakarta remembered

Review: Mrazek’s collection of oral histories evoke a by-gone age

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Sue Blackburn

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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

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