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

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

by Rudolf Mrazek


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A Certain Age is an unconventional, evocative work of history and a moving reflection on memory, modernity, space, time, and the limitations of traditional historical narratives. Rudolf Mrázek visited Indonesia throughout the 1990s, recording lengthy interviews with elderly intellectuals in and around Jakarta. With few exceptions, they were part of an urban elite born under colonial rule and educated at Dutch schools. From the early twentieth century, through the late colonial era, the national revolution, and well into independence after 1945, these intellectuals injected their ideas of modernity, progress, and freedom into local and national discussion.

When Mrázek began his interviews, he expected to discuss phenomena such as the transition from colonialism to postcolonialism. His interviewees, however, wanted to share more personal recollections. Mrázek illuminates their stories of the past with evocative depictions of their late-twentieth-century surroundings. He brings to bear insights from thinkers including Walter Benjamin, Bertold Brecht, Le Corbusier, and Marcel Proust, and from his youth in Prague, another metropolis with its own experience of passages and revolution. Architectural and spatial tropes organize the book. Thresholds, windowsills, and sidewalks come to seem more apt as descriptors of historical transitions than colonial and postcolonial, or modern and postmodern. Asphalt roads, homes, classrooms, fences, and windows organize movement, perceptions, and selves in relation to others. A Certain Age is a portal into questions about how the past informs the present and how historical accounts are inevitably partial and incomplete.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822346975
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 04/16/2010
Series: a John Hope Franklin Center Book Series
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Rudolf Mrázek is Professor of History at the University of Michigan. He is the author of several books, including Engineers of Happy Land: Technology and Nationalism in a Colony; Sjahrir: Politics and Exile in Indonesia, 1906–1966; and Bali: The Split Gate to Heaven.

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ISBN: 978-0-8223-4697-5

Chapter One


* * *

Riding, riding, riding, through the day, through the night, through the day. ... And courage is grown so weary, and longing so great. There are no mountains any more, hardly a tree.... Alien homes crouch thirstily by mired springs.... And always the same picture. One has two eyes too many. -Rainer Maria Rilke, The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke


Already in the late colonial era "the road network in Jakarta had been asphalted and many trees cut down to make way for electricity and telephone wires and poles. The effect was to make it much harder on the eye." In the time of independence, after 1945, the Sukarno era, the poor and untidy quarters around the axes of the metropolis were progressively (albeit slowly) cleared, and cleared out. Since the 1970s, in the post-Sukarno years, the tempo quickened. Jakarta has been officially called BMW-bersih, "clean," manusiawi, "humane," wibawa, "ordered." It became a correct feeling (if there is such a thing) that one might ideally comprehend Jakarta in one glimpse: "Jakarta can be immediately seen on the map. The shape or layout of the city is marked by the flyovers and motorways running east, south, and west, cutting through the metropolis and heading out into the countryside." 4 Not yet, but almost, postcolonial (and postrevolutionary) Jakarta has become a postmodern metropolis, like Los Angeles, for instance, "whose mystery is precisely that of no longer being anything but a network of incessant unreal circulation-a city of incredible proportions but without space, without dimension."

The traffic lights of Jakarta throughways and avenues, after the sun sets and the still remaining poor neighborhoods disappear in the dark,6 offer a perspective that is geometrical and logical. The straight lines, abstract and thus pure, meet at vanishing points. They are like the continuity of a political task, or like the "rails of revolution" that Sukarno, the president and the engineer, talked about: "Do you want to live forever? So pull back to the moment of the Proclamation of our Independence ... back to the purity of our souls, ... back, and straight on, to the moment when our Revolution began!"

The rows of lights-of traffic and of revolution-as in Siegfried Kracauer's vision, "create an appearance of a plentitude of figures from zero" as they "progress in one-dimensional time"; this logic, the geometry, and the politics "work hard to reduce everything to the level of the zero out of which [they want] to produce the world." The lights in straight or correctly curved rows, indeed, dazzle the observer and mold his memory as they "emerge from the past without substance, purged of the uncertainty of existence, [and] they have the stability and outline of algebra."

As one walks and drives through the avenues and highways of Jakarta, one can feel that the city and the revolution might have been built in the same way:

The Indonesian Republic can live 1 year, 2 years, 3 years, 30 years, 300 years, and, straight on, till the end of time....

One year since the Proclamation of our Independence became 2 years, 2 years became 3 years, 3 years became 4 years, 4 years became 5 years, 6 years, 7 years, 8 years, 9 years, 10 years, 11 years ... and God Willing these 11 years will become 110 years, 1,100 years, maybe 11,000 years!

Today we experience the 17th anniversary, 17x17 Augusts of freedom! 2x, today, we experience August 17th, the Proclamation of Independence Day, the reckoning that is great and holy!

To move through that kind of space and along those kinds of lights brings, kind of, a sense of liberation. Trying to observe and absorb this post- Palladian, postcolonial, and almost postmodern metropolis, one might almost convince oneself that "the community of human destinies is experienced in the anonymity of non-place, and in solitude." Almost, thus, one might comfort oneself that in a non-place like this, any "spectator," acceptably and correctly, "is a passerby." The omnipresence of the hard surface, of the asphalt of the roads and of the concrete of the walls, may, almost, bring satisfaction to a scholar.

Not being able to penetrate, not seeing much beyond reflections (the walls are not just of concrete but of glass as well, and the wet asphalt is like a mirror), may cause a pleasing sensation: "There is no sub-text.... The enunciative domain is identical with its own surface." By the very contours of the metropolis, the view and the thinking of the passerby is "drawn close to the surface of the architectural frame.... This relationship [is] further pressured [by] reducing the foreground elements of architecture while emphasizing the horizon itself as an object, maintaining the spatial hierarchy of perspective by bringing it up to but not over the limit." This kind of architecture, of horizon, and of counting, it has been argued, is built as a "monumentalizing of age." To live and die through this space, as well as merely to pass by this space, it may become (it may be reduced to) "an act of remembrance."

* * *

I think of Mrs. Sosro as the most beautiful apparition. She was a woman of a little over ninety when I met her in 1992. She was my first (memorable) interviewee in Jakarta on the metropolis project. She could not easily walk anymore. She received us sitting in her bed, a big brass structure, with a single long, hard pillow and a mosquito net half pushed aside. The gauze of the net softened the light coming from the outside. Thus Mrs. Sosro's face, as well as the whole space around her, was blurred. This was the late colonial beauty of fading photographs that we postcolonial scholars do not wish to admit. It is difficult for us to convince ourselves that, perhaps, "different concepts touch here and coincide over a stretch. But you need not think that all lines are circles."

Mrs. Sosro received us in her house "in a native neighborhood" (one would say "native" if it still were the colonial times), a poor area, off the highways and promenades of Jakarta, yet very much in the center of the metropolis. I could easily imagine her, if she were not bedridden, waiting for us looking out of her window with her elbows on the sill. She had a wrinkled voice.

Mrs. SOSRO: I used to sell herb drinks, prohibited herb drinks. Thus they call me Siti Larang [Lady Prohibited]. I used to sell them on the street, and I announced my ware by the chimes of a bell. They used to ask me, "Where do you stay?" I used to say, "I don't know." They asked me, "What is the date?" I said, "I don't know." I did not wish to know. I did not wish to know what had been. Have you met Kartodirjo-?

RUDOLF MRÁZEK (RM): Sartono Kartodirjo, the historian?

Mrs. SOSRO: Sartono. He said, "He who does not understand history is like a patient in a mental hospital." I think he is crazy.

Two friends had come with me. One is a colleague, a historian, who came from the West like me. He is interested in herbal medicine. The other one is an incurable political activist. As an Indonesian revolutionary and former leader of the communist youth, he spent thirteen years in the post-Sukarno prisons of General Suharto. It was he who brought me here, because he had concluded that my research was useful and that Mrs. Sosro, a freedom fighter among other things, would be useful to me.

OTHER HISTORIAN: Mrs. Sosro, during the Dutch time [before 1942], you were selling tonic?

Mrs. SOSRO: True.

OTHER HISTORIAN: And you helped other fighters?

Mrs. SOSRO: Yes, if they needed.

OTHER HISTORIAN: You sent food to the Suharto internment camps [after 1965], too.

Mrs. SOSRO: Djoko [a friend] helped me with it, before he died. Then his mother-in-law helped. I thought of her just yesterday.

Talk hopscotched over and between national struggle, prisons, exiles, and herb-drink peddling. We three kept to our way of questioning, and Mrs. Sosro to her way of answering. Only at certain short moments-it was becoming clear to me, the most precious moments-the logic of the interview halted. An answer, and then sometimes also a question, strayed. On these few happy occasions, some of the answers and some of the questions frayed at their edges. We were getting off perspective.

OTHER HISTORIAN: You got the "Golden Pen," didn't you? How did it happen?

Mrs. SOSRO: It is from the Union of Indonesian Journalists. They believe that I am the oldest journalist still alive.

RM: Mrs. Sosro, what kind of school did you go to?

Mrs. SOSRO: No school.

RM: So, you had no school friends?

Mrs. SOSRO: No school friends. Just friends.

RM: How did you get into the nationalist movement?

Mrs. SOSRO: My vader [father] was political. Thus I am political.

RM: I see.


My friend, who had been in prison for so long, became more than a little impatient, and he began to push:

Mr. HARDOYO: Auntie Sosro, Auntie Sosro, Rudolf has written about Tan Malaka. You worked on a journal directed by Tan Malaka? Mrs. SOSRO: I do not remember. Mr. HARDOYO: You knew Tan Malaka! Everybody says so. Mrs. SOSRO: Oh, yeah. When I was in prison, I read his MADILOG. When I got out of prison, there was the Proclamation of Independence. And I lost the book. I still can't find it! OTHER HISTORIAN: Did you meet Tan Malaka in Jakarta or in Bogor? Mrs. SOSRO: It was a little book. Well, not so very little. Thin, but large. Like this. Mr. HARDOYO: He came from Banten [West Java], right? What kind of man was he? Tan Malaka. Mrs. SOSRO: He was short. And funny. So funny, my! OTHER HISTORIAN: But you have read his books? RM: Patjar Merah?

Patjar Merah (The Red Darling), is an Indonesian and revolutionary version of the French and antirevolutionary Scarlet Pimpernel. It is supposed to be Tan Malaka's life-MAterialistic, DIalectic, LOGical (it was his MADI-LOG), a thriller, and a tale of magic-a reading suited for a (victorious Indonesian) freedom movement.

Mrs. SOSRO: Patjar Merah, yes. RM: You've read it? Mrs. SOSRO: Oh, yes. But Sherlock Holmes was better. In prison I read Sherlock, Sherlock, and Sherlock again.

This marked the moment of my first (memorable) failure on this project. Soon, yet too late, I realized that I should have questioned Mrs. Sosro next about The Hound of the Baskervilles and then A Scandal in Bohemia. That chance has never returned, of course; she was ninety at the time.

RM: You read it in the Dutch [colonial] prison? Mrs. SOSRO: Of course. In the Japanese time [1942-1945], in prison, we could not read. We had to sew caps and sweep the floor.

Mrs. Sosro was not exactly getting tired. Her delicate body was not exactly failing her. Merely, through her increasingly strident breathing, longer moments of forgetting (or of thinking to herself ), through "the rhythmic interruption of the logos," she was trying to tell us, increasingly-the three of us, so bad at hearing-about a journey, and about a history, for which, as Cornet Rilke knew, "two eyes are too many."

RM: So, in the Dutch prison, you were allowed to read?

Mrs. SOSRO: Only when I was sick. And I was sick for a long time. I was brought to the prison hospital, and a plainclothes policeman came. And he asked me: "Can you read, girl?" "Of course she can read," the doctor said, "she is a political." So they put a book under my pillow. You understand: because I was sick and in the hospital.

Whatever is being asked and answered, increasingly, happens as if under a cloud of pain, a hospital, and a cemetery. She talks in tombeaux, and, by the power of it, the interview begins to flow in spite of the three of us asking our questions-against the traffic, so to speak. Even more important, in spite of and against my asking, I begin to listen, and thus get closer, perhaps, to a "dialogue, this articulation of speech, or rather this sharing of voices."

OTHER HISTORIAN: Soesanto Tirtoprodjo?

Mrs. SOSRO: The one who died? I was sick at the time. I could not do anything for him. I could go to Hatta [former Indonesian vice-president]. I wrote to Hatta, but then he got sick also. OTHER HISTORIAN: When Hatta died, did you go to his funeral? Mrs. SOSRO: Oh, no, Hatta was buried in.... OTHER HISTORIAN: Tanah Kusir. Mrs. SOSRO: Tanah Kusir. I was sick.

My friend still does not let go. He cares about my research:

Mr. HARDOYO: Auntie, Auntie, do you still remember Tan Malaka's Fighting Front? Mrs. SOSRO: Oh, I remember. I was in Malang [East Java]. Salirah, my sister, came to see me: "Get up! How can you sleep?! Don't you understand? Tan Malaka has been arrested!" I did not understand. I was ill. I couldn't move. I couldn't eat. In the end they wanted to shoot me as well. "Well, you please yourselves!"

It was hard to hear it, and it is much harder to write it down, but Mrs. Sosro was giving us her life not exactly as history-more disturbing still, for a professional, there seemed to be not even a story. Because, I now think, in Mrs. Sosro talking to us, there was nothing of the "frantic passing of the petty present."

RM: So, you were poor most of your life? Mrs. SOSRO: Yes, 200 percent poor. The rich natives were 100 percent poor. RM: But, there was a fresh newspaper at home every day? Mrs. SOSRO: Oh, yes. RM: No radio? Mrs. SOSRO: No. RM: No gramophone? Mrs. SOSRO: His Master's Voice? No, just a dog. OTHER HISTORIAN: And in the Japanese time? Mrs. SOSRO: No change. OTHER HISTORIAN: No change! Mrs. SOSRO: Well, it was not easy. But it would still get worse: people will become sentimental. They will forget what anger is. Hardoyo, you know Pranoto Reksosamoedro? Mr. HARDOYO: He just died, last month. Mrs. SOSRO: Oh, he died! Mr. HARDOYO: He died. Mrs. SOSRO: Well, during the Japanese times people were beaten and others were ordered to watch it. But nobody at that time would come and declare that this or that had to be razed: ordering people that they raze things without even thinking about it. Houses are being razed at present merely because the people who lived in them have died. Just because of that!

At this point my two friends left for other assignments, and I stayed behind for a few more minutes.

RM: Do you talk to your grandchildren like you talk to us? Mrs. SOSRO: What do you mean, my boy? RM: Do you talk to your grandchildren like you talk to those who just pass by? Do you talk to your grandchildren about history? Mrs. SOSRO: About history? Yes, sometimes they ask me. RM: What do you tell them? Mrs. SOSRO: I tell them stories. RM: So that they will not forget? Mrs. SOSRO: Yes, but I am not happy about it. I am not happy about it at all. I do not enjoy in the least that feeling after I finish a newspaper: "Who was where, what happened, was it in Yogyakarta, was it in Malang, was it Soesanto...."

Mrs. Sosro, it seems, forgot that she had already told me this. Or perhaps she was explaining to me, at last, why someone like Maurice Blanchot might write: "Whence this injunction, do not change your thought, repeat it, if you can." Her last words to me, ever, were about that historian again.

Mrs. SOSRO: Oh, when I read, "He who does not understand history is-" RM: Sartono Kartodirjo? Mrs. SOSRO: Yes. "If you do not understand history, it is the same as if you were locked in a madhouse." I have heard this, my! If it were so, I should be locked up. That Sartono, he must be- [end of tape]


If it is true that everyone has a past of his or her own, it nonetheless happens that some, those who remember having lived fragments of their past with others, can sense they have shared at least this memory with them. ... The complicity that emerges from this parallelism-no matter how capricious and subjective memory may be-sometimes materializes unexpectedly, in a serendipitous meeting or along a detour in conversation. -Marc Augé, In the Metro

There has always been much killing in Jakarta, but there has never been an age of barricades there-omnibuses turned over, "flag fastened to an axle," paving stones "dragged up to the top floors of the houses and dropped on the heads of the soldiers," "stripped bodies of the gravely wounded thrown contemptuously onto the barricades to make them higher," signs proudly affixed to barricades like that in Paris of 1871: "Barricade of the Federates, Constructed by Guillard Senior." All the pathways of Jakarta that somehow seem to matter to history are obviously asphalted. Actually, as Brecht wrote,

What's wrong with asphalt-? It's only the bog that denounces its black brother asphalt, so patient, clean and useful.... In the asphalt city I'm at home.


Excerpted from A CERTAIN AGE by RUDOLF MRÁZEK Copyright © 2010 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface: Promenades ix

Technical Note xv

1. Bypasss and Flyovers 1

2. The Walls 25

3. The Fences 73

4. The Classroom 125

5. The Window 187

Postscript. Sometimes Voices 235

Notes 253

Bibliography 293

Index 303

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