Monday, April 2, 2018
Sorcery and the Woman Scorned
Geoffrey Gorer (1905-1985) was an acclaimed and well-traveled English anthropologist. In his 1936 cultural stury "Bali and Angkor," Gorer matter-of-factly related his encounter with a German man whose messy love life left him with a bad case of The Weird.
It was a pleasantly warm night in 1935. Gorer was on a steamer traveling from Batavia to Singapore. He was standing on the deck, enjoying the sea breezes, when he noticed he was not alone. A few yards away, a fellow passenger named Muller was standing in solitary gloom, gazing blankly into the water.
Muller was an odd duck. He eschewed the company of his fellow travelers, preferring to stay in his cabin. Others on the ship only saw him at mealtimes, when he would bury his face in a newspaper and brush off all efforts to engage him in small talk.
Gorer noticed that Muller was silently crying, and was obviously deeply upset. When Gorer asked him what was wrong, the German sighed that he was very lonely. However, when Gorer invited him to come inside and share a drink with him, Muller responded with a bitter tirade against the ship's crew. He was sick of the sight of Asians, he growled. For five years now, he had been surrounded by "brown faces," and he was sick of it. He couldn't wait to return to Europe, just to be rid from them.
Some years back, Muller went on, he had helped his uncle run a hotel in Berlin. Unfortunately, the uncle experienced severe financial problems, which led to his suicide. After this tragedy, Muller managed to eke out a bare living by giving tours of Berlin's gaudy nightlife. During one of these tours, he became friends with a wealthy Indies rubber planter named Jan. His new acquaintance offered Muller a job on one of his plantations. Although Muller was certainly in need of a steady job, he declined, as he had no wish to leave Germany. However, as the German economy worsened, Muller felt it was emigrate or starve, so he sailed to Java. More bad luck awaited him: Jan, like so many others in those Depression years, had fallen on hard times and had no work to offer. Lacking the funds to return home, the stranded Muller managed to find work supervising the staff at a hotel near Batavia.
Muller was miserably isolated in his new life. His job forbade him from socializing with the guests and he was too snobbish to consider fraternizing with the staff, all of whom were the native Javanese he disdained. Eventually, his desperate loneliness led him to become involved with a Eurasian woman named Anna. Anna lived with her Javanese mother and uncle. Muller described the latter as "a thoroughly disreputable old fellow, who made a living by doctoring the sillier natives and giving them amulets and love philters...I thought he was an old rogue and let him see it."
Despite his persistent bigotry, Muller was content enough with his liaison until the day Anna announced that she was pregnant. She insisted that Muller marry her. He flatly refused. Sleeping with a "native" woman was one thing; taking her as a wife was another matter altogether. He agreed to acknowledge the child as his, and provide for its support, but that was as far as he would go. Anna, however, was desperate for her baby to be legitimate. They quarreled over the issue so bitterly and frequently that Muller broke off all contact with her. Anna retaliated by creating violent scenes at the hotel where he worked, which led Muller to call the police.
After that, Anna left him alone, but Muller found that her uncle was now following him everywhere he went. One day, as Muller was in a barbershop, the uncle dashed in and made off with a lock of his hair. Soon after that, he scooped up a patch of mud where Muller had stepped. This strange action was observed by one of the hotel's Javanese waiters. He warned Muller to leave town immediately, as the uncle was obviously planning to cast a spell on him. Muller scoffed at such superstition. He told Gorer, "Of course I couldn't do a thing like that; everybody would know about it, and my position would become impossible. And, anyhow, I didn't believe he could do anything except perhaps poison me; and I took good care not to eat anything which I hadn't seen others already eat."
For some time, Muller's life passed uneventfully until he received a letter from Anna. She apologized for her previous behavior, and informed him that she would soon give birth to their child. She begged him to come and see her. At first, Muller was inclined to ignore her pleas. On the other hand, she was the only person in Java he had ever been close to, and he had been fond of her once. On his next evening off, he went to Anna's house. He found a lavish feast waiting for him. Still wary about being poisoned, he made sure to only consume what his hosts had eaten first. The evening went pleasantly enough until Anna again brought up the subject of holy wedlock. When her pleas for marriage began to turn to angry threats, Muller began to leave. Anna literally threw herself at his feet, grabbing his legs and imploring him to say why he refused to marry her. She pointed out that he had liked her enough to make her his mistress for two years. She vowed that if he made her his wife, she would make him happy.
The exasperated Muller lost his temper. She wanted to know why he would not marry her? Very well. It was because she was a Malay, and he refused to be tied for life to a woman of her color. Anna replied angrily that he would never marry anyone of a different color. "You won't see anybody who looks a different color!" she snarled. Then she bit him. Muller tore free of her and left.
The next morning, Muller was minding the front desk of his hotel, when he was unpleasantly surprised to see Anna approach him. Muller yelled at her to get out or he would call the police again. He was amazed to see her indignantly respond in English...a language he knew Anna could not speak. Then Anna's uncle strode up and began scolding Muller for frightening his wife. Muller was thoroughly disconcerted to realize that he recognized these voices as those of a British couple who were staying at the hotel. He managed to stammer out a bewildered apology. Soon after that, his horror and confusion deepened when he walked into the hotel dining room. He told Gorer, "Every table was occupied by Annas and her uncles. Every white woman I saw looked like Anna, every white man like her uncle. It was horrible, and what was worse, I couldn't do my work properly any more; when all the clients looked the same I never knew which were speaking to me."
It soon became obvious to the hotel staff that something was very odd with Muller. The waiter who had earlier warned him about witchcraft urged Muller to visit a local dukun (healer.) At first, Muller refused. However, as his strange condition persisted, sheer desperation drove him to consult with the magician.
The dukun agreed that Muller had been well and truly bewitched. He said the simplest solution to Muller's predicament would be to marry Anna. That, he explained, would break the spell. Muller refused to even consider the idea. He figured it was bad enough that his former lady love was a Malay. Discovering that she was a sorceress was even worse. The dukun offered a Plan B: if Muller could bring him a lock of Anna's hair, some of her nail parings, and a drop of her blood, he could work a counter-spell.
"But we're in the twentieth century," Muller pointed out to Gorer. "I can't go about picking up other people's nail-clippings, even if she'd give me the chance, which wasn't likely; and apparently it wasn't any good if anyone else did it. So the magician said he couldn't help me." The dukun was, however, able to give him one bit of encouragement: "It won't travel over water."
This may have been an overly optimistic diagnosis. Muller informed Gorer that he took care to avoid glancing at anyone. When Gorer pointed out that Muller had been looking at him, the German explained that Gorer's back was against the light, thus obscuring his face. Gorer wrote, "I didn't reply, but lit a match so that the flare lit up both our faces. After that I went back to my cabin, for the expression on his face showed clearly enough how mine had appeared to him."
Gorer knew nothing about Muller's subsequent fate. We are left with the ironic mental image of a racist who could only see "brown faces" skulking around the "Aryans" of Nazi Germany.
Anna's revenge may have been even greater than she planned.