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Tuesday March 28th 2017

Balzac’s Fantasy of 19th Century Java

Hawé Setiawan

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) wrote Voyage de Paris à Java. His work first appeared in Revue de Paris on 23 November 1832. Barry Winkleman translated it into English under the title of My Journey from Paris to Java, and it appeared in 2010.

Balzac had never been in the island of Java. What he tells is an imaginary journey. In other words, he imagines himself of having visit Java, and shares his fantasy to the readers. His materials are probably the writings and drawings of Java published in his day.

At first sight, readers would probably think Balzac visit the region he tells. His way in telling the story and describing the nature and life in Java is, to some extent, lifelike. It is at the end of this work that he reveals its fictitious nature. ‘True or false, these fantastic stories implanted in me the whole of Indian poetry,’ said he.

Balzac’s work demonstrates how significant is literary skill for travelogue writing. A traveler with a poor writing skill will undoubtedly produce a vain story. A skilful writer, though cannot afford a chance for journey, can produce a fine account of a journey.

Indeed, not all details of Balzac’s story are lifelike, especially if one reads his work today. One can notice, for instance, his description of ‘Javanese woman’: ‘Women there are as white and smooth as the finest vellum; no shade of color touches the their complexion; their lips are pale; their ears and their nostrils — all are white; only their fine black eyebrows and their brown eyes are contrast with this bizarre pallor.’

Authors like Balzac are certainly children of their era. The colonial period of 19th century witnessed a lot of texts on East Indies, especially on Java. From Raffles to Junghuhn, there were various scientific observations over the region. From Andries de Wilde to John Stockdale, there were various popular writings about the same region. Balzac’s work helps mark the panorama with his own characteristic, which is literary imagination. They reflect European interest in colonial time Indies, in which Java was the center of excellence.

‘I swear that for Europeans, above all for a poet, no country is as delicious as the island of Java,’ said Balzac.

With that statement, he tells about a narrator’s trip to Java where he stayed for ten months with a ‘beautiful Javanese woman’. He tells about wonderful things on the island, especially about Javanese women, volcameria flower, sparrow, coffee, tea, and the upas tree that contains deadly poison.

Like many colonial European writings about Indies, Balzac’s work distinguishes two worlds: the superior Europe and the inferior Asia. His perspective on both Europe and Asia, however, is ambiguous. The images of exotic, mysterious, and captivating Asia seemed to be a counter to the images of flat, rigid, and boring Europe. ‘Europe is impotent: God and Asia alone have been able to create such a pleasures as cannot describe — like the mystical hymns of two hearts locked in their vivid embrace,’ wrote Balzac.***

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