BOOK REVIEW: Rudolf Mrázek’s A Certain Age

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Mrázek, Rudolf. A Certain Age: Colonial Jakarta through the Memories of Its Intellectuals. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2010.

About the Author:

  • Professor Emeritus in Department of History at University of Michigan (Dept of Anthropology and History), years at Michigan 1990-2014
  • Czech born historian, specialist in cultural history, history of science

Previous work:

Through the lens of technology and modernity, Rudolf Mrazek (Engineers of Happy Land: Technology and Nationalism in a Colony, 2002) offers a compelling, frenetic journey through the landscape of the last decades of Dutch colonial rule in the Indies. Mrazek’s multifaceted historical method mirrors his complex topic of research—he zooms in and out, zips through time and space, and pauses on certain individuals to dwell on their lives, dreams, and fantasies. Mrazek focuses particularly on Kartini and Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006) and their encounters, fascination, and moments of translation (the hearing Sukarno’s “soft voice”) with technology. Notably, Mrazek loosens the representation of historical time; he challenges a chronology towards independence in order to understand the flurry of cultural and political change through the eyes and ears of historical actors.

A Certain Age: Colonial Jakarta through the Memories of Its Intellectuals

Drawing from his critical inquiry on ‘technology’ from his previous work, Rudolf Mrazek continues to examine how individuals envisioned themselves within a changing landscape. In A Certain Age, Mrazek weaves a colorful fabric of Indonesian history through the memories of its colonial and postcolonial intellectuals. From 1990-2000, Mrazek interviewed elderly Indonesians about their childhood in the Dutch colonial period, their experiences with Western imperial modernity, Japanese occupation, and the Suharto regime. His subjects range from famous Indonesian writers, artists, musicians, politicians, journalists, Javanese, Sudanese, Sumatrans, and from Jakarta and beyond. He juxtaposes the Indonesian landscape with European modernists writers such as Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka, and Le Courbusier.

The most notable feature of this ambitious work is Mrazek’s approach to his subjects. Mrazek strives to journey with his interviewees, as they recall flickers and fragments of memories, pass through their homes, and dwell on scents and sounds of the past. Leaving in the pauses, anecdotes, and grammatical breaks, Mrazek presents a stream of consciousness waltz through the memories of Indonesian intellectuals. Through this method, the materiality of memory emerges as vivid and experienced—as readers, we move through the interviewees’ homes, their salons full of piano music and jazz, and witness the familiar warmth of servants and guests. In his chapter on houses and homes, Mrazek highlights conversations on toys and beds, warmth and nostalgia. He observes, “Questions about proximity, even nearness, tend to be answered by the old people by pointing out how the inhabitants—and things—of the house of the past were moving all the time, how alive they were, and how large, again, or better, open, the house therefore had been.” (28-9)

The book is divided into the following five thematic chapters: Bypasses and Flyovers (the city), The Walls (houses), The Fences (between and through fences and streets), The Classroom (ordered learning and youth), and The Window (painting and photography). In his postscript, “Sometimes Voices”, Mrazek attempts to reiterate his goal for the book to convey a certain age, “A color, a tone of voice, a tactile choice of word, a simple vibration.”

Three questions and observations:

On form: The book likens to a coffee conversation rather than an investigative report with a clear structure and objective. Yet, what is included or excluded through this method compared to other ethnographic interviews such as in Heonik Kwon’s and Gail Hershatter’s works? How is the interview performed and which types of questions are unanswered? (Refer to Mrazek’s question regarding cars for the rich on page 95).

On memory: How does Mrazek juxtapose different types and approaches to memory? What does he convey through placing conversations alongside museums, libraries, and cemeteries?

On location: One of the most profound contributions from this work is Mrazek’s language where he conveys delicate imagery and the soft textures of memory. Within the conversations, memory is ‘located’ in places, objects, and things. Material reminders such as “streets like this” trigger long anecdotes of childhood and wartime. It seems though that these memories only are unlocked through the act of communication, particularly to a younger generation or to outsiders.

On colonial modernity: What is colonial modernity through the eyes of Indonesia’s intellectuals? “Breathing modern”, services, and witnessing history through the eyes of the bourgeois elite and the distanced vantage point of cars and ethnic isolation

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