Stefan Zweig ‘Amok’

-Psychological enigmas exert a kind of chilling influence over me;  I seek with all my heart to understand the relationship between different things, img_0948 and the presence alone of intriguing individuals can unleash in me a desire to understand almost as vital as the passionate desire to possess a woman.***

For German lit month VI, I chose to read two different books with the same title, here Zweig’s Amok and in a separate post, Fitzek’s Amok, both authors treat the title of their book, Zweig explaining the meaning of the word to people maybe unfamiliar with it and Fitzek more precisely giving a recognised definition.

Zweig’s story takes place on an ocean liner with the narrator making the trip back from Calcutta, unable to sleep at night because of the poor cabin he had been able to obtain at the last minute. As he wanders the decks at night he meets a mysterious passenger and the narrator, as the opening quote leads us to understand is curious, and eventually persuades the stranger to relate his story. The stranger begins by explaining to him the concept of Amok:

-Do You know what Amok is?
-Amok?….I think I remember……it’s a kind of intoxication amongst the Malaysians
-Its more than intoxication, it’s madness, a sort of human rage, an inexplicable attack of murderous monomania.***

The stranger explains that eight years previously he had had to leave Germany in shame after  stealing money for a woman and ended up as a doctor in the Malaysian countryside, living alone where he was surviving better than others:

-A European, in a manner of speaking torn apart, when coming from a large city,  arriving in one of those cursed outposts deep in the swamps; sooner or later, they each receive the fatal blow: some drink, others smoke opium others only think of striking out and become brutes.***

The stranger was approaching separation when one day a very proud and haughty white lady drives up close to his house and after making oblique references to her condition, she explains that she is consulting him exactly for the reason that he lives far from the European community and she offers him a considerable sum if he would “care” for her and then leave the country forthwith making contact with anyone. He then understands that he would be required to carry out an “intervention” to restore her to her previous state before her husband, who has been away, gets back on Friday:

-It wasn’t the first time women had asked me to carry out such a service; but they were of a different countenance: they were filled with shame or begged they cried or prayed. But here was one…yes, with an iron, virile resolve…From the first second I had felt that this woman was stronger than I….that she could impose her will as she wanted…but…but…there was also something bad in me…I was like a man who competes, who is annoyed, because..as I’ve already said…from the first moment, yes, even before I saw her, I had felt this woman to be an enemy***

 When at first he refuses she leaves at once, refusing ever to see him again, realising his sudden feelings for her and the error he has made he forgets everything, who and where he is, who and where she is and bent on just one thing, rejoining her, he runs Amok. The story is a tragic one, right up to the very last misfortune, travelling back to Europe on the boat full of guilt with, unintentionally, her husband and her body, bringing us back to the mystery of the opening lines of the book:

-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—

First Published in German as “Der Amokläufer” in the Neue Freie Presse in 1922
Translated into English by Anthea Bell as ‘Amok’ and published by Pushkin press in 2007
Read in French hence *** my translation

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