The Man Who Knew Javanese

by Lima Barreto


In a confectionery, my friend Castro once told me the pranks I had played on convictions and respectability in order to live.
There was even, on a given occasion, when I was in Manaus, when I was forced to hide my quality as a bachelor, in order to obtain more confidence from the clients, who came to my office as a sorcerer and diviner. I told that.
My friend listened to me quietly, in rapture, liking that my experienced Gil Blas, until, in a pause in the conversation, when we ran out of glasses, he observed haphazardly:
– You’ve been leading a very funny life, Castelo!
– Only in this way can one live … This is a unique occupation: leaving the house at certain hours, returning at other times, it is boring, don’t you think? I don’t know how I got on there, at the consulate!
– Get tired; but, this is not what I admire. What amazes me is that you have run so many adventures here, in this stupid and bureaucratic Brazil.
– Which one! Right here, my dear Castro, beautiful pages of life can be found. Imagine that I was a Javanese teacher!
– When? Here, after you returned from the consulate?
– Not; before. And, by the way, I was appointed consul for that.
– Tell me how it went. Do you drink more beer?
– I drink.
We sent for another bottle, filled the glasses, and continued:
– I had just arrived in Rio I was literally destitute. I was on the run from a pension house in a pension house, not knowing where and how to make money, when I read in the Jornal do Comércio the following announcement:
“A Javanese language teacher is needed. Letters, etc.” Now, he said to me, there is a position there that will not have many competitors; if I had four words, I would introduce myself. I left the cafe and walked the streets, always imagining myself a Javanese teacher, earning money, riding a tram and without unpleasant encounters with the “corpses”. Insensibly I went to the National Library. I wasn’t sure which book to order; but I went in, gave the hat to the doorman, received the password and went upstairs. On the stairs, I came to ask the Grande Encyclopédie, letter J, in order to consult the article on Java and the Javanese language. No sooner said than done. I learned, after a few minutes, that Java was a large island in the Sonda archipelago, a Dutch colony, and that Javanese, the binding language of the Maleo-Polynesian group, had a noteworthy literature written in characters derived from the old Hindu alphabet.
The Encyclopédie gave me an indication of works on the Malay language and I had no doubts in consulting one of them. I copied the alphabet, its figurative pronunciation and left. I walked the streets, wandering and chewing letters. In my head, hieroglyphics danced; from time to time I consulted my notes;

I would go into the gardens and write these calungas on the sand to keep them in my memory and get my hand used to writing them.
At night, when I was able to enter the house without being seen, to avoid indiscreet questions from the supervisor, I still continued in the room to swallow my Malay “a-b-c”, and with such determination I carried the purpose that, in the morning, I knew it perfectly.
I convinced myself that it was the easiest language in the world and I left; but not so soon that I did not meet the person in charge of renting the rooms:
– Senhor Castelo, when do you pay your bill?
Then I answered him, with the most charming hope:
– Soon … Wait a minute … Be patient … I will be appointed Javanese teacher, and …
Then the man interrupted me:
– What the hell is that, Lord Castle?
I enjoyed the fun and attacked the man’s patriotism:
– It is a language that is spoken there by the bands of Timor. Do you know where it is?
Oh! naive soul! The man forgot my debt and said to me with that strong Portuguese speaking:
– I’m here for me, I’m not sure; but I heard that there are lands that we have there for the sides of Macau. And do you know that, Senhor Castelo?
Excited by this happy departure that the Javanese gave me, I went back to looking for the ad. There he was. I resolutely decided to apply to the ocean language professor. I wrote the answer, went through the newspaper and left the letter there. Then I went back to the library and continued my Javanese studies. I did not make much progress that day, I do not know whether because I considered the Javanese alphabet the only knowledge necessary for a Malay language teacher or if I was more involved in the bibliography and literary history of the language I was going to teach.
After two days, I received a letter to speak to Dr. Manuel Feliciano Soares Albernaz, Baron de Jacuecanga, at Rua Conde de Bonfim, I don’t remember what number. And I must not forget that in the meantime I continued to study my Malay, that is, the Javanese. In addition to the alphabet, I learned the names of some authors, also ask and answer “how are you?” – and two or three grammar rules, backed up by 20 words from the lexicon.
You cannot imagine the great difficulties I struggled with, to arrange the four hundred réis of the trip! It is easier – you can be sure – to learn Javanese … I went on foot. I arrived very sweaty; and, With maternal affection, the years old mango trees, which were outlined in a lane in front of the proprietor’s house, received me, welcomed me and comforted me. In my whole life, it was the only moment when I came to feel the sympathy of nature ..

– The old man, I amended, listened to me attentively, considered my physique for a long time, seemed to think that I was in fact the son of a Malay and asked me sweetly:
– So you are willing to teach me Javanese?
– The answer came out unintentionally: – Yes.
– You will be amazed, added Barão de Jacuecanga, that I, at this age, still want to learn anything, but …
– I don’t have to admire it. Have you seen examples and very fruitful examples …?
– What I want, my dear sir ….
– Castle, I went on.
– What I want, my dear Senhor Castelo, is to fulfill a family oath. I don’t know if you know that I am the grandson of Counselor Albernaz, the one who accompanied Pedro I when he abdicated. Returning from London, he brought here a book in a strange language, which he was very fond of. It was a Hindu or Siamese who had given it to me, in London, out of thanks to I don’t know what service my grandfather had provided. When my grandfather died, he called my father and said: “Son, I have this book here, written in Javanese. He told me who gave it to me that he avoids misfortunes and brings happiness to those who have it. I don’t know anything for sure. In in any case, keep it; but if you want the fado that the oriental sage laid down for me to be fulfilled, make sure your son understands it, so that our race will always be happy. ” My father, the old baron continued, did not believe the story much; however, he kept the book. At death’s door, he gave it to me and told me what he had promised his father. At first, I did not make much of the story of the book. I laid him in a corner and made my life. I even forgot about him; but, from time to time, I have gone through so much heartbreak, so many misfortunes have fallen on my old age that I remembered the family talisman. I have to read it, understand it, if I don’t want my last days to announce the disaster of my posterity; and, to understand it, of course, I need to understand Javanese. Here it is.
He fell silent and I noticed that the old man’s eyes had dewed. He discreetly wiped his eyes and asked me if I wanted to see that book. I said yes. He called the servant, gave him the instructions and explained to me that he had lost all his children, nephews, with only one married daughter left, whose offspring, however, was reduced to a son, weak in body and in fragile and fluctuating health.
The book came. It was an old calmaço, an old room, bound in leather, printed in large letters, on thick yellowed paper. The cover sheet was missing and therefore the date of printing could not be read. There were also some preface pages, written in English, where I read that these were the stories of Prince Kulanga, Javanese writer of great merit.
I immediately informed the old baron that, not realizing that I had arrived there through English, he kept my Malay knowledge in high regard. I was still leafing through the Cartapácio, like someone who knows that kind of vasconço masterfully, until at last we contracted the price and time conditions, committing myself to make him read the carob before a year.
Soon I was teaching my first lesson, but the old man was not as diligent as I was. I couldn’t learn to distinguish and write even four letters. Anyway, with half the alphabet it took us a month and Senhor Barão de Jacuecanga was not very master of the subject: he learned and unlearned.

The daughter and son-in-law (I think they knew nothing about the story of the book until then) came to hear about the old man’s study; they didn’t bother. They found it funny and thought it was a good thing to distract him.
But with what you will be amazed, my dear Castro, it is with the admiration that the son-in-law was having for the Javanese teacher. What a unique thing! He never tired of repeating: “It is a wonder! So young! If I knew that, ah! where were you !”
Dona Maria da Glória’s husband (as the baron’s daughter was called), was a judge, a related and powerful man; but he was not afraid to show his admiration for my Javanese before the whole world. On the other hand, the baron was delighted. After two months, he had given up on learning and asked me to translate, every other day, an excerpt from the enchanted book. It was enough to understand him, he told me; nothing was opposed to someone translating it and hearing it. This way he avoided the fatigue of the study and fulfilled the task.
You know well that to this day I know nothing of Javanese, but I composed some very silly stories and forced them on the old man as a chronicle. How he heard that nonsense! …
He was ecstatic, as if he were hearing the words of an angel. And I grew up in your eyes!
He made me live in his house, he filled me with gifts, he increased my salary. Finally, he passed a well-deserved life.
The fact that he came to receive an inheritance from a forgotten relative who lived in Portugal contributed a lot to this. The good old man attributed it to my Javanese; and I was almost to believe it too.
I was losing my remorse; but, in any case, I was always afraid that someone who knew the Malaysian puma would appear in front of me. And my fear was great, when the sweet baron sent me with a letter to the Viscount of Caruru, to get me into diplomacy. I objected to him: my ugliness, the lack of elegance, my Tagalog aspect. – “Come on!” He said. Go, boy; you know Javanese! ” I sent the viscount to the Foreigners’ Office with several recommendations. It was a success.
The director called the heads of section: “Look, a man who knows Javanese – what a portent!”
The section heads took me to the officers and amanuenses and there was one of them who looked at me more with hate than with envy or admiration. And everyone said, “So you know Javanese? Is it difficult? There is no one who knows it here!”
The amanuensis, who looked at me with hatred, then helped: “It’s true, but I know canaque. Do you know?” I said no and I went to the minister’s presence.
The high authority stood up, put his hands on the chairs, fixed the pince-nez on his nose and asked, “So, do you know Javanese?” I said yes; and, on his question where he had learned it, I told him the story of that Javanese father. “Well, the minister said to me, you shouldn’t go to diplomacy; your physique is no good … The best thing would be a consulate in Asia or Oceania. For now, there is no vacancy, but I am going to reform and you will come in. From today on, however, I am attached to my ministry and I want you to leave for Bale next year, where you will represent Brazil at the Linguistics Congress. Study, read Hovelacque, Max Müller, and others ! “
Imagine that I knew nothing about Javanese until then, but I was employed and would represent Brazil in a congress of scholars.

The old baron died, passed the book on to his son-in-law so that he could reach his grandson, when he was of an appropriate age, and made a cue in my will.
I began with enthusiasm in the study of the Maltese-Polynesian languages; but there was no way!
Well-dined, well-dressed, well-slept, he didn’t have the energy to get those weird things into the cache. I bought books, subscribed to magazines: Revue Anthropologique et Linguistique, Proceedings of the English-Oceanic Association, Archivo Glottologico Italiano, the devil, but nothing! And my fame grew. On the street, those informed pointed me out, saying to the others: “There goes the guy who knows Javanese.” In bookstores, grammarians consulted me about the placement of pronouns in the jargon of the Sonda Islands. I received letters from scholars in the countryside, the newspapers cited my knowledge and I refused to accept a group of students eager to understand this Javanese. At the invitation of the newsroom, I wrote, in the Jornal do Comércio, a four-column article on ancient and modern Javanese literature …
– How, if you knew nothing? attentive Castro interrupted me.
– Quite simply: first, I described the island of Java, with the help of dictionaries and a few geographies, and then I mentioned the most not being able.
– And you never doubted? my friend asked me.
– Never. That is, once I almost get lost. The police arrested a guy, a sailor, a tanned guy who only spoke a strange language. Several interpreters were called, no one understood him. I was also called, with all the respect that my wisdom deserved, of course. I was slow to go, but I went after all. The man was already free, thanks to the intervention of the Dutch consul, to whom he made himself understood with half a dozen Dutch words. And the sailor was Javanese – uf!
Finally, the time for the congress came, and there I went to Europe. Delicious! I attended the opening and the preparatory sessions. They signed me up in the Tupi-Guarani section and I moved to Paris. Before that, however, I published my portrait, biographical and bibliographic notes in the Messenger of Bale. When I returned, the president apologized for giving me that section; I did not know my work and thought that, because I was a Brazilian American, the Tupi-Guarani section was naturally indicated to me. I accepted the explanations and even today I have not been able to write my works about Javanese, to send him, as I promised.
After the congress, I published extracts from the article by the Messenger of Bale, in Berlin, Turin and Paris, where the readers of my works offered me a banquet, chaired by Senator Gorot. It cost me all this game, including the banquet that was offered to me, about ten thousand francs, almost all the inheritance of the credulous and good Baron de Jacuecanga.
I didn’t waste my time or my money. I became a national glory and, when jumping on the Pharoux pier, I received an ovation from all walks of life and the President of the Republic, days later, invited me to lunch with him.
Within six months I was dispatched consul in Havana, where I was for six years and where I will return, in order to improve my studies of the languages ​​of Malay, Melanesia and Polynesia.

– It’s fantastic, observed Castro, grabbing the beer glass.
– Look: if I wasn’t going to be happy, do you know it would be?
– What?
– Eminent bacteriologist. Let’s go?
– Let’s go.
Gazeta da Tarde, Rio.28-4-l9ll.

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