Book Review: “Imperium” — A Shock-Packed Pastiche of History

In this entertaining satire of empire, Christian Kracht makes use of a nihilistic magic realism, without the sweetness one normally associates with that mode.

Imperium: A Fiction of the South Seas by Christian Kracht. Translated from the German by Daniel Bowles. Farrar Straus Giroux, 192 pp, $25.

By Kai Maristed

9780374175245Fame works in mysterious ways.

The semi-fictional August Engelhardt, protagonist of Christian Kracht’s Imperium, “moans his old litany that it is likely his fate to die without being understood, forgotten, without a trace.” It’s safe to assume that the real Engelhardt lamented similarly, by the time he found himself an emaciated, sick, and debt-ridden pariah on the South Sea island where from 1909 to 1913 he had labored and invested his all — fortune, health, sanity — to create the ‘Order of the Sun’: an ‘international tropical colonial empire’ of nudist cocovores. (Yes, exactly: the acolytes, nude under the equatorial sun, were required to nourish themselves solely from the milk and meat of the coconut.)

Just as the colony of German New Guinea vanished from the world stage — the territory, annexed summarily in 1884 despite Bismarck’s dour misgivings, was snatched away by Australia in 1914 at the outbreak of WW1 — so plantation-owner Engelhardt’s bizarre life story, ideals and vision sank into near-instant oblivion. But not for all time! There has been a veritable Engelhardt resurgence recently: a 2011 German pseudo-science lecture on the merits of cocovorism on YouTube (almost 8000 views), a 2011 novel by the German Marc Buhl that is roughly as historically accurate (or inaccurate) as Kracht’s (the two writers must have been delighted to find they were harvesting in the same plantation, so to speak). There is a film in the works, slated for 2016 — of Imperium, a prior film project based on Buhl’s book having apparently been scuttled in the wake of Imperium‘s far superior sales. There is the re-publication of Engelhardt’s once-popular opus, A Carefree Life. There are even a few voices in rather obscure vegetarian publications raised in defense of the principle of cocovorism. Neither the dream nor the dreamer are forgotten, after all.

The boyish-looking, forty-something Swiss author Christian Kracht knows something about fame these days, first hand. Imperium was and is a solid bestseller in Germany, far outstripping Buhl’s well-reviewed Das Paradies des August Engelhardt (not available in English) which is reportedly infinitely more sympathetic to the hapless central figure than Imperium, casting A.E., albeit with humor and historical circumspection, as one of humanity’s necessary fools, an ideal-drunk Icarus who flies too close to the sun.

Kracht as a writer is something of an anti-Engelhardt: his Weltanschauung is drenched in irony. His 1996 debut novel, Faserland, was an everyone-acts-badly-and-ends-badly Bright Lights, Big City meets On the Road tour of Germany and Switzerland, involving scads of scatology as well as drugs, narrated by a privileged, aimless graduate of Germany’s top boarding school, Salem. Kracht — who went to Salem, and later to Sarah Lawrence college — was anointed one of the leaders of a new movement, ‘Pop literature.’ (He doesn’t like the label.) Faserland has been a reliable source of impassioned controversy ever since its anointment by the large state of Nordrhein-Westfalen as required high school reading.

Imperium, too, received a huge controversy and publicity bump when a critic in Der Spiegel accused its author of scarcely veiled racism. Most but not all of the cream of current German letters rose to his defense; there were headlines in all the papers, TV debates, etc. This reviewer, for the record, doesn’t find the charge merited. Whatever views Kracht may or may not have expressed elsewhere, only the most humorless, ahistorical fundamentalist could find a racist message in Imperium‘s slightly precious, omniscient voice, as it attempts to mimic the sensibilities of early 20th century Europeans in their often bestial, sometimes brave, mostly blinkered grabs for land and people to exploit. In fact, one way to think of Imperium is as the story of a very small, illusionary, failed simulacrum of empire inside the infinitely larger real thing.

What then, is the story, in Kracht’s version? In outline, roughly this: August Engelhardt, a weedy young man with a small inheritance and an immense belief in the aforementioned roads to enlightenment of sun, nudity, and cocovorism, sets out by steamer to purchase a piece of paradise that can nurture a colony of believers in Papua New Guinea, near the German capital of Herbertshoehe (later Rabaul). En route he is elaborately swindled by an Indian who flatters August’s dietary views; on arrival, he is charmed and bamboozled by Queen Emma, the beautiful, hotblooded, business-savvy plantation owner who sells him a worthless little island, Kabakon, for all his money plus years of coconut oil revenues to come.


Engelhardt’s very fecklessness somehow wins over the natives who work for him for little or nothing and build him a comfortable hut. He has a devoted, mysterious boy always at his side, Makeli. He has a thin trickle of visitors, all of whom he embraces at first as soulmates, all of whom eventually disappoint — one so severely, by raping Makeli, that August may have been compelled to bash his head in with a coconut. (Kracht renounces omniscience here, preferring to leave us guessing.) In any case, “We do not meet Aueckens again until he is dead, lying facedown on the ground and naked, with a shattered skull; some gelatinous brain matter has leaked out. Flies carouse on the still-lustrous wound on the back of his head, which simply will not dry–”

Years pass. The plantation flourishes until A.E. starts to lose interest, and his grip. Meanwhile, word has spread in Europe of this charismatic guru in the jungle, this literal antipode to the straitlaced society of Wilhelmine Germany, and a gaggle of mostly adolescent would-be acolytes fetches up in Rabaul. Alas, by this point Engelhardt is so physically enfeebled (malnutrition, infections, parasites, even leprosy) and mentally far gone (paranoid, he digs tiger-traps all around the island) that he can’t receive them. It’s too late.

Up to this late juncture Kracht has hewn in large part to the known life of Engelhardt, albeit taking considerable liberties, including the introduction of at least one major fictional character, and the excision of others, such as a female lover, important to the real A.E. But since many of the penultimate pell-mell events appear to have sprung from Kracht’s imagination, I won’t spoil the surprises for those who may want to read this book. Suffice it to say that all manner of things are wrapped up neatly, in the style of a 19th century novel. And that absolutely everyone meets a bad end.

It’s a picaresque tale set in an exotic world that allows Kracht to give full rein to an exuberant talent for the gruesome and shocking. (One recalls the focus on farts and feces in his first novel). Vignettes of local cannibalism afford a good start, but the scene in which Engelhardt severs and then eats his own thumb — in hiding, like a boy stealing from the cookie jar — takes, so to speak, the cake. Death drops in often and when least expected by both character and reader; the gory, bizarre details invite simultaneous disgust and amazement. And as he produces the bizarre along the way Kracht doesn’t give a fig about credibility, verisimilitude, or the laws of physics. He works in a nihilistic magic realism, without the sweetness one normally associates with that mode.

Kracht, himself well traveled, e.g. as a journalist in India, Iran and elsewhere, enjoys riffing off odd encounters, the odder the better. Imperium is full of these. The painter Emil Nolde visits A.E. and paints him. (I can find no historical record of this, but Nolde did make a journey to New Guinea!) The real concert pianist Lutzow actually did visit the real Engelhardt; Kracht has him canoeing a piano to the island where the local chief is so enamoured of this music that he orders a silent piano made of rattan for himself. While still in Germany August is beaten up on an East Prussian beach and almost saved by the young editor of the famous literature-and-arts journal of the time, Simplicissimus. A near miss. And so on.

Another, related, characteristic of Imperium is its air of authorial attention deficit disorder. (AADD?) The novel starts out linearly enough, allowing for some informative and entertaining backflashes, but it’s not long before that omniscient narrator starts wandering in and out of the lives and minds of a large cast of characters — some of whom, like Albert Einstein, Engelhardt will never even encounter. Serendipity is fine in limited doses. Too much bopping from subject to subject robs a novel of space to develop central characters and themes. Engelhardt remains a cypher as well as a symbol, not a three-dimensional man. Kracht tries to snap us to renewed interest and attention with portentous handwaving, e.g. the figurative “The first dark clouds, however, were already advancing, and briskly at that, as we shall now see.”

Kracht’s stance toward most of his characters is one of light mockery, ironic distance, sometimes derision. He might be channeling Oscar Wilde, without the witticisms. This is especially true regarding Engelhardt, and if the author doesn’t empathize with his character, how can we?

Photo: Frauke Finsterwalder

Best-selling Swiss author Christian Kracht. Photo: Frauke Finsterwalder

Perhaps we’re not meant to. Imperium repeatedly opens out to give a much widened picture of events beyond Kabakon Island, both on the geographic dimension and on the time dimension. Imperium positions itself very much as a novel of ideas. To this end, Kracht plays around a great deal with drawing a parallel between Engelhardt and–are you sitting down? — Adolf Hitler. Both are vegetarians, fanatic idealists, creators of an empire. This just doesn’t hold up, since the real Engelhardt, rather a bleeding heart, was a terrible strategist and probably never hurt a fly. Kracht even portrays ‘his’ Engelhardt as becoming a raving anti-Semite in his paranoid years. This raises, to me, a moral question: how far may a writer go in appropriating and altering a dead person’s essential identity?

It’s when Kracht relaxes and simply lets himself write that his considerable gifts show. His sentences are balanced and sinuous — and Daniel Bowles’s translation if anything improves on the original. He can be lyrically evocative of place: “…the Helgoland uplands where the seagulls floated motionlessly over the cliffs near Hoyshorn like white stones in the wind.” And occasionally he can offers a poignant insight. Lutzow, yearning to return to Berlin, reflects, “…of what use to anyone is escape if one does not return to apply what has been learned and experienced?”

That said, if a novel doesn’t touch one emotionally, and/or in some way change one’s perceptions, is it not reasonable and relevant to wonder what its purpose is, its reason for being? The drum-beating has been considerable. The publisher’s advance publicity quotes a reviewer’s comparison of Imperium to Daniel Kehlmann’s breathtaking novel Measuring the World. But while Kracht is indeed rowing in his friend’s historical-magical wake, he has none of the latter’s grave interrogative regard for such things as friendship, courage, and science. On Imperium‘s back cover, the currently hot Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard blurbs it as a ‘Conradian literary adventure for our time’ — a terrible misreading of Conrad, whose tenacious, tenebrous moral investigations are anything but ‘adventure fiction.’

One thing Imperium evidently does deliver, for thousands of readers, is entertainment. It’s short, at 180 pages, colorful and shock-packed, a well-researched pastiche in which the puzzle pieces of history are pushed around with unshakable irony, if not condescension. Can it be that in the end Kracht has, despite himself, authored a new twist on the movement called ‘Popliteratur’?

Kai Maristed studied political philosophy in Germany, and now lives in Paris and Massachusetts. She has reviewed for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and other publications. Her books include the short story collection Belong to Me, and Broken Ground, a novel set in Berlin. Read her Paris-centric take on politics and the arts here.

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