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Christian Kracht: Imperium (2012)

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glm_iiiI’m posting this review for German literature month, an initiative run by Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life. It’s always fun to join and read other bloggers’ reviews of German/Austrian/Swiss literature, so thanks to our intrepid organisers for their dedication – you are wonderful! What I particularly like about this year’s edition is that they’re trying to achieve an even gender balance and encouraging people to read female German-language writers. Even so, I’m starting my contribution of a meagre two books with a male author, and on top of it I’m technically cheating because I actually read Imperium in October already… pssst.

Imperium tells the fictionalised story of August Engelhardt, a German apothecary from Nuremberg who emigrated to German New Guinea in the early 1900s. Engelhardt was a nudist and vegetarian, who believed that the coconut was the holiest of all fruits because it grew up high, closest to God, and so he became a cocovore. He purchased land on Kabakon, an island with a coconut plantation in German New Guinea in order to plant the seeds of what he was hoping would eventually become a world empire of fruitarianism. Engelhardt actually gained a small group of followers, some of whom joined him on his island – even though they didn’t last long, what with the issues of malnutrition that arise from only eating coconuts. If all this doesn’t sound crazy enough, it seems that somewhere along the way Engelhardt really lost his marbles, to the extent that the colonial authorities prevented further potential followers from joining him on Kabakon because they considered him dangerously mad.

Mixing fiction and historical fact, Kracht narrates Engelhardt’s voyage to Kabakon, his establishment on the island and his slow descent into complete derangement. The real Engelhardt died on Kabakon in 1919, but Kracht has him survive until after the Second World War, only to be picked up by American soldiers who feed him hot dogs, bringing the absurdity of the story full circle. Imperium sparked some controversy when it first came out, not just because literary critics were divided about its quality (some thought it was brilliant, others thought it was Kracht’s submission to absolute boredom), but because one particular critic, Georg Diez of Der Spiegel, thought it finally showed Kracht’s racist and right wing tendencies, which he had carefully hidden in previous books. Upon which another critic claimed that Diez didn’t have a sense of humour and was generally wrong, and so on. I haven’t read any of Kracht’s other works, but based on my reading of Imperium I would tend to agree with those who say that the racist-sounding passages are part of the parody Kracht makes of Engelhardt’s story.

I think this because of the narrator – an omniscient, ironic fellow who writes in the convoluted manner of the time (if anyone has read this in translation, I’d be interested to hear how they made this work). Statements like

“this report takes place at the very beginning of the twentieth century, which, almost until the middle of its course looked like it might become the century of the Germans, the century in which Germany would occupy its rightful place of honour as the chair of the world’s round table”*

can therefore be seen as a truthful depiction of what Germans at the time thought about their right to ‘a place in the sun’. Likewise, Kracht’s descriptions of natives that lend themselves to being interpreted as racist, are a reflection of the sort of superior romanticism with which colonialists (and not just Germans) looked down upon the original residents of the land they occupied.

In fact, I found that these are the sections where Imperium is at its best: whenever it shows and caricatures the spirit of its time. Sometimes (as in the quote before), the narrator goes off on historical tangents about what would happen later in the century. He depicts a linear relationship between Engelhardt’s fanatic, but more or less harmless, idealism and wish to construct a world-wide empire of cocovores, and Hitler’s absolute fanaticism:

“And so, a representative story of only one German will now be told, of a romanticist who, like so many of this species, was a failed artist, and if sometimes an awareness emerges of parallels with a later German romanticist and vegetarian, who perhaps had better stayed true to his easel, then this is indeed intentional and in a sense, pardon, in nuce, also coherent.”**

Otherwise, I would tend to agree with the critic who accuses Kracht of being a bit insipid and boring: Imperium, for all its absurdity, is entertaining enough, but there’s really not that much innovation here except for the choice of a convoluted style to go with the setting. However, just this style actually becomes a tad annoying and sometimes detracts from the irony of the narration rather than adding to it as was probably Kracht’s intention. I don’t quite understand what all the fuss was about with regard to Imperium. While it was apparently much expected after a long silence from the author, I don’t think it’s interesting enough to warrant the huge storm of attention it got.

* my translation, original: “dieser Bericht spielt ganz am Anfang des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts, welches ja bis zur knappen Hälfte seiner Laufzeit so aussah, als würde es das Jahrhundert der Deutschen werden, das Jahrhundert, in dem Deutschland seinen rechtmäßigen Ehren- und Vorsitzplatz an der Weltentischrunde einnehmen würde”

** my translation, original: “So wird nun stellvertretend die Geschichte nur eines Deutschen erzählt werden, eines Romantikers, der wie so viele seiner Spezies verhinderter Künstler war, und wenn dabei manchmal Parallelen zu einem späteren deutschen Romantiker und Vegetarier ins Bewusstsein dringen, der vielleicht lieber bei seiner Staffelei geblieben wäre, so ist dies durchaus beabsichtigt und sinnigerweise, Verzeihung, in nuce auch kohärent.”

Author: Bettina @ Books, Bikes, and Food

I blog about the books I read, the food I cook, and the biking I do. And some other things, too.

9 thoughts on “Christian Kracht: Imperium (2012)

  1. Another new name to the list I must read more female writers in translation would live find some figures on gender and translation to English sure they would show it is maybe more male than female which doesn’t seem right all the best stu

  2. I’ve got this not too long ago as a present. It’s not exactly the type of book I would have bought. Luckily you make it sound better than i thought it would be. I still think I’ll start with Faserland whoch I’ve got somewhere. I remember the discussions in the newspapers.

    • I also never would’ve bought this if it hadn’t been for the controversy, which kind of had me intrigued, so when I came across it in the bookshop a few weeks ago I thought I’d give it a shot. I was also pleasantly surprised, although as I said, I still don’t quite get why all this fuss was made about the book. It just doesn’t seem that extraordinary to me.
      I haven’t read Faserland, but what I’ve read about it makes it sound more innovative than Imperium. Let me know how you like it!

  3. Interesting review, Bettina! I haven’t heard of Christian Kracht before and so this is an interesting introduction to a new-to-me author. It is interesting to know about the controversy which erupted when the book was published. I think that is quite strong criticism. I think if we look at any book published before the second world war in the 20th century and in any previous century, with our 21st century liberal lens, there will always be issues in the way natives are depicted or in the way women are depicted. In my own opinion, if a modern book which depicts a previous era makes us angry, then it is probably accurate in its depiction of the life and thoughts of that time :) I love the cover of the book.

    Thanks for this interesting review.

    • Haha, you’re probably right! I was very curious to find out whether this journalist who freaked out about the book did so for a reason, and in my view he got it wrong. I think Christian Kracht was probably giggling with glee when he heard of the controversy he sparked.
      Also, the hardcover version actually has an even prettier cover, here: http://culturmag.de/rubriken/buecher/christian-kracht-imperium/46271 (I don’t know if Google Translate can help you with the article about the book, but it may be worth trying because it’s actually very good).

      • The German cover definitely looks prettier! I don’t know why they didn’t retain that in the English version. Thanks for the link to the article, Bettina. I will try to use Google Translate and read it. Looking forward to reading it soon.

  4. Pingback: German Literature Month III – Author Index | Lizzy's Literary Life

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