Stefan Zweig’s Amok

If I did not know that it was Stefan Zweig’s second best-known novella, “Amok” (1922, the title story of a collection subtitled “Novellas of a Passion”), I’d think that it had been written by W. Somerset Maugham. It is set in Maugham territory both in terms of geography (colonial southeast Asia, the Dutch colony of Indonesia) and in terms of its theme of hopelessly doomed love.

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The narration is more Conrad than Maugham, the story of a Leipzig physician who took up an appointment in the sticks and never traveled to Batavia (now Jakarta). One fine (or not so fine, sultry, tropical) day in 1912, a chic woman from the capital (the first white woman he has seen in years) sought him out. She was in need of an abortion before her husband returned from abroad. She offers him enough money to skip out of his colonial service contract and compensate him for his lost pension, but is not willing to ask him to do it FOR her. Or to bed him, when he rashly suggests that.

 She storms out of his clinic, returns to the capital, and has a botched abortion. When the physician gets to see her, she is dying and all he can do is ease her death and provide a death certificate with a false cause of death. He books passage on the ship (Oceania) that is taking the coffin (and the widower husband) back to Europe, determined to keep her secret (from any possible autopsy there). He keeps to his cabin during the day, but tells his story to the narrator sitting smoking on deck some nights.

Both the woman and the physician (neither is named, nor is the narrator) act very extremely, though neither “runs amok” in the original Malay sense of unmotivated attacks by the one “running amok.”

(There was a 1934 French film adaptation and a 1945 Mexican one, neither of which I have seen.)

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I don’t know if Zweig’s style in German is “pedestrian.” In English the revival of his work has been aided by translator Anthea Bell. I don’t know why Bell rendered the halting speech the peasant cook nicknamed “Leporella” in Cockney.

The story strikes me as a variant on the even more famous “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” with another affluent Viennese oblivious to the passionate devotion of a woman, a hardworking unworldly servant who may have removed the irritation of a neurotic wife, making it look like suicide (though he glimpses the possibility, there is no proof).

©2014, Stephen O. Murray

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