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Reading Indonesia

Review: A new textbook invites readers to consider a broad concept of ‘Indonesia’

Andy Fuller

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The Indonesia Reader, edited by Tineke Hellwig and Eric Tagliacozzo, aims to ‘help those who are interested in this unique country’ to understand it better. Using narratives of history, culture and politics to approach Indonesia, The Reader provides a stimulating, challenging and provocative portrait presented through texts chosen on either because they pull apart the concept of ‘Indonesia’ or because they strengthen it.

The book presents texts chronologically, from fifth century writings in Sanskrit on stone pillars found in Kutei in eastern Borneo, through the Dutch colonial period, the Japanese occupation, revolution and independence, ending in the early years of this century. These readings are divided neatly into 10 chapters, each of which has an overview and summaries of the context in which each selected reading was written.

The editors maintain a fine balance between primary source, academic analysis and overview. Their introductions to each section, which are clear and nuanced, will be particularly useful to readers unfamiliar with the original texts.

The complexity of their approach is demonstrated in the way they have edited the texts, skilfully contrasting ideologies and perspectives. For example, in Chapter 8, eyewitness accounts of the killings of 1965-66 are juxtaposed against an account by Suharto in which he describes his humble beginnings and vouches for his ethical principles which have been derived from his simple background

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