A medical school graduate, E. A. Talbot, fails twice his qualifying examination for a position as British Army surgeon. He leaves England and vows never to return to Europe. He lands a job working for the Dutch government as the administrator of Halak-Proot, a psychiatric hospital that houses about 100 mentally ill officers and some colonists. It is located in the jungle of Java. The institution is a magnet for madness. Patients never improve and sometimes get worse there. The soldiers are more inclined to feign psychosis than return to battle.

When his father dies, Talbot inherits property. He sells it and uses the money to transform the psychiatric hospital into a luxurious estate. Cases of dementia soon plummet. The facility no longer accepts any patients except those who are indisputably insane. Soldiers somehow discover their sanity and are refused entry. Talbot grows old in his exclusive paradise that now has room for only him, a guard, and a custodian.


Reconstruction--of damaged lives, minds, career, and an institution--is a major theme of the story. Reparation for ruin and shame is tricky business. The outcome of our best intentions is sometimes mangled. Destiny is portrayed as frequently ironic.

The description of the isolated psychiatric hospital is disturbing and includes an account of overcrowding, yellow walls, trepanning rooms, padded cells, a repugnant menu, straitjackets in need of repair, and howling.

The story raises intriguing questions about the nature of sanity. For a time, the doctor is just as "lost" as his patients. Is he passionate about his job, altruistic, or crazy? The story suggests that sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.


Translated by Alastair Reid.

Primary Source



Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Place Published

New York



Page Count