Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 22, 2014

Amok and Other Stories, by Stefan Zweig, translated by Anthea Bell

AmokI am indebted to Stu from Winston’s Dad for my discovery of Stefan Zweig: if it hadn’t been for Stu’s Pushkin Press Fortnight 2014, I might never have got around to reading this. (Zweig is listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, but since I’ve got nearly 700 books to go, the chances are that Zweig might never have made it off the wish-list).

Zweig, 1001 Books tells us, was a notable author in Austria before the war, fled the Nazis and ‘disillusioned by the rise of fascism’ took his own life in 1942 in a double suicide with his wife.  His work faded into obscurity soon after his death, and it was not until it was translated into English in the 1990s and promoted by Pushkin Press and the New York Review of Books that there was a resurgence of interest.  It’s another example of a great writer from the past being squeezed out by publishers constantly flooding the market with more and more books,  many of them of dubious quality.  (See my post about Geordie Williamson’s The Burning Library for more about this issue, and what it means for great Aussie authors).

Anyway, there are four novellas in this compact edition by Pushkin Press – Amok; The Star Above the Forest; Leporella,  and Incident on Lake Geneva and also a Translator’s Afterword. I’ve only read the first story, Amok, so far …

I found Amok to be an intriguing story that offers much to think about.  It’s the story of a doctor facing an existential crisis in what was, when Zweig wrote this story in 1922, the Dutch East Indies.  A psychological study that shows the character confronted by a moral dilemma that becomes an irrational compulsion which destroys him,  the novella is framed as a narrative within a narrative.  A stranger meets this distraught doctor hiding himself away from everyone as their ship returns to Europe, and the doctor unburdens himself to the stranger in the dark of the night, even though, as the reader eventually learns, there is some risk to him in doing so.

The voice in the dark hesitated again.  ‘I would like to ask you something … that’s to say, I’d like to tell you something.  Oh, I know, I know very well how absurd it is to turn to the first man I meet, but … I’m … I’m in a terrible mental condition, I have reached a point where I absolutely must talk to someone, or it will be the end of me … You’ll understand that when I … well. if I tell you … I mean, I know you can’t help me, but this silence is almost making me ill, and a sick man always looks ridiculous to others.’ (p. 21)

Tension lingers throughout the story from the opening paragraph, in which the unnamed stranger tells us that

In March 1912 a strange accident occurred in Naples harbour during the unloading of a large ocean-going liner which was reported at length by the newspapers, although in extremely fanciful terms.  Although I was a passenger on the Oceania, I did not myself witness this strange incident – nor did any of the others – since it happened while coal was being taken on board and cargo unloaded, and to escape the noise we had all gone ashore to pass the time in coffee-houses or theatres.  It is my personal opinion, however, that a number of conjectures which I did not voice publicly at the time provide the true explanation of that sensational event, and I think that, at a distance of some years, I may now be permitted to give an account of a conversation I had in confidence immediately before the curious episode. (p.11)

So as we read, there is not only the confessional conversation between the doctor and the stranger to consider, but also our curiosity about what this odd incident might be – which of course is not revealed until the end of the novella.  There’s also the distancing effect of the first-person narrator (the stranger) narrating another character’s first-person narrative, and we see that he too – at a distance of some years – feels the need to unburden himself of this secret that he hasn’t ‘voiced publicly’.  The urge to confess is powerful indeed.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

While I enjoyed the story, admired the cunning way in which it was constructed and was fascinated by the doctor’s tale of his own madness, it bothered me that Amok relies in part on a whole lot of colonial assumptions.  Life in the tropics i.e. European colonies is used as a cause of madness, recalling Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. and Bernard Atxaga’s Seven Houses in France.  While the novella is a compelling work of fiction, I am a bit uneasy about the attitudes that underlie this ‘people go mad in the colonies’ trope.

‘Amok’ is a Malay word meaning ‘madness’, and ‘running amok’ means suffering from uncontrollable madness.  It refers to extremely odd, hyperactive behaviour which is actually associated with the advanced symptoms of rabies,  called ‘Furious Rabies’ not with a psychiatric condition at all.  (Rabies is endemic in SE Asia).   In Zweig’s story the doctor – exiled from his homeland because of a misdemeanour and banished to a remote outstation in the colony – runs amok in ‘that filthy isolation, that accursed country that eats the soul and sucks the marrow from a man’s loins’. (p. 24)

When the stranger demurs (as I do), the doctor has a ready answer:

‘Ah, you protest … oh, I understand, you are fascinated by India, by its temples and palm trees, all the romance of a two-month visit. Yes, the tropics are magical when you’re travelling through them by rail, road or rickshaw: I felt just the same when I first arrived seven years ago.  I had so many dreams, I was going to learn the language and read the sacred texts in the original, I was going to study the diseases, do scientific work, explore the native psyche – as we would put it in European jargon – I was on a mission for humanity and civilisation.  Everyone who comes here dreams the same dream.  But then a man’s strength drains away in this invisible hothouse, the fever strikes deep into him, and we all get the fever, however much quinine we take – he becomes listless, indolent, flabby as a jellyfish.  As a European, he is cut off from his true nature, so to speak, when he leaves the big cities for some wretched swamp-ridden station.  Sooner or later we all succumb to our weaknesses, some drink, others smoke opium, others again brawl and act like brutes – some kind of folly comes over us all.  We long for Europe, we dream of walking down a street again some day, sitting among white people in a well-lit room in a solidly lit house, we dream of it year after year … (p. 24)

Reading this through a post-colonial lens, I see the doctor’s initial plans to connect with the locals as racist.  He does not recognise them as people equal to himself with a shared humanity, people as worthy of his companionship as the people he knows in Europe – he sees them as exotica, to be studied, as one might study rare flora and fauna.  IMO, the real cause of his isolation and loss of perspective is that for the best part of a decade, Zweig’s character has refused to connect with his community.  He hasn’t learned their language so he can’t make friends with them or understand anything about them.  He thinks they have nothing to offer him.  And (as if his body has not acclimatised in nearly a decade) instead of acknowledging his own inertia, he blames his torpor (the weather) for preventing him from recognising the rich and sophisticated civilisation of the Malays, their music, their drama, their poetry and their art.   (It’s everywhere, it’s all around him!)

The truth is that this doctor considers himself superior to the Malays and thinks he has no alternative but to live in solitude.  The only civilisation he knows about is European civilisation and so in its absence, he thinks there is no civilisation.  He despises the humility of the Malay women that he uses for his pleasure: he fails to recognise their common humanity.  It’s not the tropics that puts his sanity at risk, it’s his own racism and sexism, but when he goes over the edge, Zweig calls it ‘running amok’.  The question is, is Zweig using irony?  From my reading of the text I don’t think so.  I may be wrong because this is the only story by Zweig that I’ve read, but I get the impression that the author does think that people go mad in the tropics because there is no civilisation there.  It was not an uncommon view in the early 20th century …

So (back to the story) when a rich, arrogant white woman turns up demanding an abortion, the doctor cracks.  He has been powerless to determine his own fate, and now he has power over someone else, someone that he considers his equal.    She expects him to do her bidding, and but he’s insulted by the amount of money she offers which is not equivalent to the pension he is anticipating.  For him, the way to humble her is to demand sex.  When she walks out on him, he chases after her, behaving in increasingly bizarre ways, leading to his own destruction because – in the European construct of running amok, that’s what happens if you stay in the tropics too long.

Who’d have thought that a novella of only 77 pages would generate a review that takes three days of thinking, re-thinking, writing and re-writing, eh? (And I’m still not sure about what I’ve written here, feel free to challenge it, please!)

Thanks, Stu!

Author: Stefan Zweig
Title: Amok and Other Stories
Translated by Anthea Bell
Publisher: Pushkin Press, 2006, reprinted 2010
ISBN: 9781901285666
Source: Personal library

Availability
Fishpond: Amok and Other Stories: “Amok”; “The Star Above the Forest”; “Leporella”; “Incident on Lake Geneva”


Responses

  1. Stefan Zweig’s non-fiction is now available in eBook form: http://plunkettlakepress.com/zweig.html

    • Thanks Patrick, it’s always good to know where hard-to-source books can be found:)

  2. I agree that the postcolonial perspective is very necessary reading Zweig. But there is very often this sort of difficulty with “literature” since writers in many ways reflect the values of their day along with moments of insight which may challenge the values of their day–even with Shakespeare! But if you value the subtleties of a narrative/play, the aesthetic worth, and the one or two very original insights, then this will usually be sufficient.


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