Imperium: a Fiction of the South Seas
by Christian Kracht (translated by Daniel Bowles)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published July, 2015
In 1902, August Engelhardt left Germany for the islands of the Bismarck Archipelago, in what was then German New Guinea. He was in his mid-twenties, and determined to escape what he saw as the nervous maladies associated with industrialisation and the gloomy climate of the northern hemisphere. The strand of primitivism he embodied was eccentric, but certainly not unique. At the time a faddish interest in non-Western religious beliefs and the development of a tourist industry invited frustrated Europeans to flirt with countries and cultures that were apparently outside the fold of a repressive and militaristic modernity. But Engelhardt’s fixation on the tropics was certainly unusual in its fanaticism. He was both a vegetarian and a practicing nudist. He also believed in a form of sun worship. The coconut, as both a source of life and a religious fetish, was the material basis of his worldview. His 1898 manifesto, A Carefree Future: the New Gospel, co-authored with August Bethmann, envisions a ‘cocovoristic sun-man’ living in ‘harmony with God’ and receiving everything ‘straight from the hands of God’. Under bright, tropical skies, the eyes, hair and skin would draw in this divine solar energy: ‘light=warmth=life’ while ‘night=cold=death.’ The coconut, which was virtually all one needed to survive according to Engelhardt, was the product and the symbol of this energy. As the historian Sven Mönter puts it, Engelhardt ‘made the coconut the centre of his ideology’.
It’s an absurd vision, but also one full of pathos and not untouched by tragedy. Engelhardt proselytised and managed to draw a handful followers after him. He purchased the island of Kabakon, which had a coconut plantation, and lived on it with a small population of Melanesian and Solomon Islander laborers. He has been described as a hippy avant la lettre, but his utopianism was also deeply and unmistakably entangled with the imperial structures that enabled it. What he called the Order of the Sun was also dubbed the Equatorial Settlers Association. Engelhardt imagined that he was building a ‘colonial empire of vegetarians.’ He didn’t get very far. Mönter can document no more then fourteen followers who made it to Kabakon. Some died of illness or other undocumented causes. Some lost interest and left. The failure of Engelhardt’s scheme paralleled his own physical breakdown. By 1906 he was quite sick and evidently mentally unstable. He looked skeletal as a result of his diet, and was apparently suffering from malaria, scabies, and rheumatism. He also sported abscessed sores on his legs. Further indignities awaited him. As the last surviving member of the Order of the Sun he became something of a tourist attraction, a local curiosity to be gawked at and photographed by travellers. Australian soldiers found him during the First World War and briefly interned him in Rabaul. Upon his release he returned to Kabakon, where he died in 1919.
The madness of Engelhardt’s adventure is the basis of Christian Kracht’s fourth novel, and the first to be translated into English, Imperium. Right now Kracht is virtually unknown to English-speakers. For German-speakers, however, the Swiss author is already a fairly recognisable name with a growing critical literature about him. His first novel Faserland (1995) is considered a milestone work of German pop-literature, and his subsequent novels have kept him in the public eye, albeit in a sometimes polarising way. More importantly, he has developed what feels like a thematically cohesive body of work that returns to the simultaneously utopian and dystopian possibilities that lurk in and beyond an affluent, but experientially impoverished Europe. The 2012 publication of Imperium, however, put Kracht at the centre of a minor literary controversy. For now it seems that his American publisher is keeping quiet about the debate that briefly raged after Georg Diez, writing in the Der Spiegel, described Kracht as the ‘gatekeeper of rightwing thought’ and claimed that his work demonstrates how ‘anti-modern, anti-democratic, totalitarian thinking finds its way into the mainstream’.
Kracht’s publisher, Kiepenheuer & Witsch, issued a prompt response describing Diez’s article as malicious and slanderous. A number of writers, including Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek, also came to Kracht’s defence. ‘One of us is crazy,’ Jelinek said in response to the article, ‘either Herr Diez or me’. It wasn’t long before the literary world had closed ranks and Diez’s accusations were appropriately dispelled. Most major reviewers in Germany celebrated Imperium. The novel also went on to win the Wilhelm Raabe Literature Prize, which is worth 30,000 euros and among Germany’s most important literary awards. In 2013 Surkamp published an anthology that documented the critical discussion around the novel (all of the reviews I touch on in this essay are available in it). But as Diez put it in a subsequent response to the debate, Kracht’s work had inspired a feeling of uneasiness in him (Unbehagen is the word he uses) well before the publication of Imperium. I have to say I know what he means, although I don’t share his conclusions. Kracht works with a lightness of touch and a sort of pop-culture sensibility that has enabled critics to describe him as postmodern. And yet there is something unsettling in the way in which he engages with world-historical processes and dynamics. His work embodies a kind of dissidence that doesn’t lend itself to conventional political categories. And if not conventional political categories, then what? It isn’t hard to see why his work might unsettle a certain sort of critical sensibility.
Imperium is a case in point. The novel is clearly a kind of pastiche. It orients to late nineteenth-century works of imperial adventure, and has very audible echoes of Conrad, Stevenson and Melville. It is also thick with the atmosphere of the tropics as a splenetic or scabrous European of the late nineteenth century might have imagined them: mosquitoes, malaria, mangroves and syphilitic plantation owners ‘smacking their lips while dreaming of bare-breasted, dusky Negro girls’. The novel takes a distinct pleasure in indulging these clichés. There is no claim to veracity. The cover of the beautifully produced German edition, illustrated in the style of Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin (a steamship approaches an island concealing a skull under a fern frond), sets the tone. The whole thing seems to have the gravity of a comic book, albeit one tinged with irony and a good dose of grotesque gallows humour. But as numerous German critics have pointed out, it is the narrative voice of Thomas Mann that Imperium most insistently evokes, though often by way of parody or inversion. One might think of the grandiose manner in which Mann introduces Hans Castorp’s story in the forward to The Magic Mountain, where he firmly plants his novel in an apparently remote period of German innocence before the First World War and makes a lot of what he calls the patina of its period orientation. Kracht’s novel has the same sense of being rooted in the past, yet it is written with an ominous and epochal awareness of how the first half of the twentieth century will play out, and this taints virtually everything in it. It is Kracht’s sense of the catastrophic character of modern German history that partly drives the novel’s eccentricity. Whereas The Magic Mountain, Mann tells us, is Hans Castorp’s story, and not ‘every story happens to everybody,’ in Imperium Engelhardt’s story is barely his at all, partly because he hardly constitutes a character in the conventional sense. There is a flatness about him, and a lack of interiority. Sometimes our encounters with him are like glimpses of a figure in a photograph, or a series of photographs: we have fragments, scenes, or episodes, not the seamless and detailed sense of character development that Mann painstakingly creates.
All of this is quite deliberate. The contrast between ‘fading photographs’ that radiate ‘intensely out of the past’ and a present that ‘consumes itself in fractions of a second,’ is something the novel itself dwells on, and one of the effects it is intent on creating. This sense of an immobilised past, embodied in images and archives, assailed by the present also suggests the historical circumstances that inform Kracht’s contribution to (or demolition of) the high cultural inheritance associated with a figure like Mann. In Imperium, one fanatical vegetarian merely serves to evoke another. We are entering the realm of allegory with all its attendant strangeness and self-consciousness. This is clear when, in the novel’s first chapter, Kracht evokes the imperial Wilhelmine backdrop. We get a sense of historical sweep and gravity as Mann might have imagined them, but at the same time Kracht revises these conventions in order to create a very different, and much stranger, temporal sensibility.
Now, it is into this time that our chronicle falls, and if one wishes to narrate it, then one must bear in mind the future as well, for this account takes place at the very beginning of the twentieth century, which until just before the midpoint of its duration looked as if it would become the Century of the Germans, the century in which Germany would take its rightful place of honor and precedence at the table of nations, and from the perch of that new century, aged but a few years according to the lives of men, this appeared to be precisely the case. Thus, as a stand-in, the tale of but a single German will now be told, of a romantic who was, as are so many of this species, a thwarted artist; and if at times, in the course of things, parallels arise with a later German romantic and vegetarian who perhaps ought to have remained at his easel, then this is entirely intentional and naturally, do pardon, consistent in nuce. At the moment, the latter is still just a pimply, cranky lad who gets innumerable smacks from his father. Just wait and see, though: he grows and grows.
The cadences and the ambition of Mann seem evident here, but the effect of telling a story grounded in a particular historical period is completely revised when the narrator emphasises his foreknowledge of what will transpire in the thirties and forties. One of the effects of this to mark the anachronistic, now comically evasive character of mannered, euphemistic prose, but another is to risk trivialising the very history that is apparently being allegorised. In the shadow of the German half century, the postmodern orientation to pastiche that in an Anglo-American context seems adapted to its material, might appear a bit too whimsical.
That Kracht digresses in order to exaggerate this effect merely adds to the sense of unease his novel generates. Consider the moment, early on, at which Engelhardt passes through Munich. Here what would otherwise be a harmless backdrop shudders with a proleptic awareness of events that are yet to transpire.
The Feldherrnhalle, that Florentine parody off yonder, scarcely dignified by a glance, stands admonishingly, indeed almost slyly, in Munich’s spectral summer light. In just a few short years, the time for it to play a leading part in the great Theatre of Darkness will finally come. Flags with the Hindu sun cross will festoon it impressively and then, climbing the three or four steps to the stage, a squat vegetarian, an absurd black toothbrush mustache under his nose, will . . . oh, let’s just wait for it to commence somberly (in Aeolian minor), that Great German Death Symphony. It might be comical to watch, were unimaginable cruelty not to ensue: bones, excreta, smoke.
Virtually everything in Imperium falls into this temporal cleft. The rubric around German romanticism, or a phrase like the ‘the German soul,’ resonates with this strange before and after effect, which is only heightened by the novel’s self-conscious and meta-textual relationship to German cultural modernity. And of course Kracht’s digressions into this territory invite us to reflect on his own stylistic innovations, which allude constantly to visual media like photography and film:
the seizure of the island Kabakon by our friend looked quite different depending on the viewpoint from which one observed the scenario and who one actually was. This splitting of reality into various components was, however, one of the chief characteristics of the age in which Engelhardt’s story takes place. To wit: modernity had dawned; poets suddenly wrote fragmented lines; grating and atonal music, which to unschooled ears merely sounded horrible, was premiered before audiences who shook their baffled heads, was pressed into records and reproduced, not to mention the invention of the cinematograph, which was able to render our reality exactly as tangible and temporally congruent as it occurred; it was as if it were possible to cut a slice of the present and preserve it in perpetuity between the perforations of a strip of celluloid.
This sense of things splitting, of multiple viewpoints, of a slice of time that is now never simply ‘as tangible and temporally congruent as it occurred’ captures the effect of Kracht’s novel. And in this respect the modernity (or postmodernity) of Imperium is squarely at odds with the fictional Engelhardt, who on stepping back into an ‘exquisite barbarism’ is intent on ‘withdrawing not only from modernity dawning the world over, but altogether from what we non-Gnostics denote as progress, as, well, civilization’.
The novel takes us to a past haunted by a future that is yet to happen. This feeling of temporal distortion also implicates its language, and its range of literary allusions. Kracht relentlessly pesters the pretentions of his self-consciously ornate prose. His novel is also bizarrely capacious (though tellingly inexact) in its referencing of German literary history. In the course of Engelhardt’s story we actually meet Thomas Mann and it is suggested that his chance encounter with a naked Engelhardt on a beach in East Prussia catalyzes the homoerotic impulse that will produce works like Death in Venice. Herman Hesse and Franz Kafka also make brief cameos. At these moments writers appear like figures caught in the background of old, sepia-tinged photographs. They are anonymous at the moment of their appearance, but retrospectively recognised in the same way that we recognize the failed artist who should have stayed at his easel. As a result it is German literature itself that appears caught in the temporal schism the novel performs, and this serves to complicate the allegorical ambitions of the text. Engelhardt’s story, as Kracht tells it, is one of idealism sinking into abjection, and in this respect the novel literalises what Walter Benjamin saw as the morbid quality of allegorical representation: behind the material signifiers of utopian fantasy, the death’s head. Hence Engelhardt’s malnutrition and worsening physical condition are the real markers of his story’s progression. Kracht makes a lot of this. Engelhardt’s conclusion is thick with the stench of rotting fruit and his body goes the same way. Bleeding oral cavities, canker sores, open wounds, legs covered with the ‘yellowish black bruises of leprosy’. Disease and malnutrition are part of the allegory – the disease of fanaticism, of anti-Semitism, the ‘infestation of the mind, an inner, incurable rottenness’ that eats through the German soul ‘like a cancerous ulcer’. But insofar as Engelhardt imagines himself as an artist, or a work of art, this vision of decay also allegorises the role of the artist in the German century:
Suddenly the thought occurred to him that possibly he himself was his own artistic artifact and that perhaps the paintings and sculptures exhibited in museums or the performances of famous operas constituted a completely outmoded conception of art—indeed, that only through his, Engelhardt’s, existence was the divide between art and life bridged.
While this passage suggests the fascist aestheticisation of the political, it also alludes to a kind of avant-garde idealism that dreamed about politicizing the aesthetic. If the political catastrophes of the German century are at stake, so too is art itself. In fact Engelhardt’s abject end reminds one of nothing so much as Franz Kafka’s hunger artist, a forgotten circus exhibit committed to the art of starvation long after the public has lost interest. When American troops discover Engelhardt ‘skeletally emaciated’ in a cave on the Solomon Islands at the end of the Second World War, Imperium departs radically from the story of the real life Engelhardt, who died in 1919. The departure is important, in that it explains how Engelhardt’s story could have been made into a Hollywood movie. This is Kracht’s concluding scene: ‘Just wait ’til Hollywood gets wind of this … You, sir, will be in pictures.’ The novel’s last paragraph recounts its first, but now reimagined on the silver screen: ‘The camera zooms in; a tooting, the ship’s bell sounds the midday hour, and a dark-skinned extra (who will not appear again in the film) strides, gentle-footed and quiet, the length of the upper deck so as to wake with a circumspect squeeze of the shoulder those passengers who had drifted off to sleep again just after their lavish breakfast.’ This too, it seems, suggests the fate of the German half century, eclipsed by the American empire and a new media environment, centred around Hollywood, that will make the kind of literary sensibility parodied by Kracht a thing of the past.
Imperium is an allusion-filled, meta-fictional, inter-textual experiment that calls it own literary heritage into question, as if a certain kind of aesthetic experience were also one of the casualties of German history. It must have been difficult to translate, given just how much of it depends on the reader hearing the cadences of a longer literary heritage. What Daniel Bowles has achieved in this respect shouldn’t be underestimated.
The novel’s allegory works on several levels, but allegory also suggests a kind of economy or focus at odds with a novel that is also being constantly distracted by its own digressions. At one point Engelhardt travels to Australia and has an angry encounter with a Seventh Day Adventist who will go onto invent Vegemite (though Kracht’s version of Vegemite’s origins is apocryphal). In another subplot characters from Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese comic books appear, highlighting Kracht’s playful confusion of high and low cultural materals: a Captain Slütter rescues the mysterious runaway Pandora from Sydney and is later hired by the German governor to kill Engelhardt (which he ultimately refuses to do). None of the novel’s digressions are given much weight or described in much detail. And in some cases historical figures, like Engelhardt himself, have their stories outlandishly fictionalised. This is the case with Max Lützow, a musician and conductor who for a while lived on Kabakon, and who plays a major role in Imperium. In Kracht’s deviously comic rewriting of his life, he dies on his wedding day, crushed by the hulls of two ships after trying to leap theatrically from one to the other while balancing a couple of champagne glasses. At the same time, and as if he is messing with our expectations about narrative time and the detail it can yield, Kracht can describe the moment at which a mosquito transmits malaria as if we are seeing the movement of parasitic protozoans through a microscope.
For all of its eccentricity, there is no sense in which Imperium identifies with the fascism it allegorises. Engelhardt is, by the novel’s conclusion, a pitiful, compromised, literally rotting emblem of a deluded idealism. It is the obstinacy of the will, not the triumph, and in this novel obstinacy and ruin are synonymous. One could accuse the novel of being flippant in its relationship to German history. One could accuse of it being obtuse about the actual violence of imperialism, which barely intrudes into Engelhardt’s grotesque comedy. But neither of these criticisms really explains what prompted Georg Diez to describe Kracht’s thinking as anti-democratic, anti-modern or totalitarian. One suspects that Kracht, as both a writer and a personality, throws up a sort of inscrutability that might have even the best intentioned critic reaching for the certainty of labels.
Part of the issue for Diez is popularity. As he points out, Kracht is a writer who matters, at least for a German-speaking public. His standing isn’t restricted to critical coteries or prize committees. He has a readership and, as Diez puts it, ‘there are people who see life differently as a result of reading his novels’. Faserland, which is often thought of as a German answer to Bret Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero, put him on the map and also generated a critical discourse that would fixate on him as an avatar of what has been called, in German critical discourse, pop-literature (a term Kracht evidently dislikes). But Faserland isn’t about the celebration of postmodern vacuity. The irony in the title is clear: Vaterland is downgraded to Fibreland, a place obsessed with branded clothing. At the novel’s core there is lurking discontent, even a sense of repulsion, at the hollow, fashion-conscious hedonism of the Germany its protagonist travels through (north to south) on his way, tellingly, to the grave of Thomas Mann in Kilchberg, Switzerland. Kracht’s second novel, 1979, published six years later, turns Faserland on its head. Here a couple of dandies encounter the drug-addled decadence of the Iranian upper-classes on the eve (literally) of the Islamic Revolution. By morning one of them is dead. Soon after the other, the narrator, embarks on a macabre quest for self-discovery, and self-renunciation, that takes him to Tibet, where he is arrested by Chinese authorities and interned in a labour camp. In a horrifying literalisation of tropes that had initially seemed to orient to a Western infatuation with Eastern mysticism, the narrator embraces ideological re-education and back-breaking labour as a form of self-discovery, and starvation and forced blood transfusions (for the good of the Chinese people) as a form of self-renunciation. A facile, fashionable Orientalism confronts the biopolitical realities of communism as Kracht reimagines the hunger for authenticity that compels affluent Westerners to fixate on cultures beyond the limits of their own experience.
In the interval between the publication of these two novels Kracht himself cut a fascinating, even glamorous figure. He’d edited the magazine Der Freund, which was based in Nepal, been Der Spiegel’s India correspondent, and written articles on various places in South East Asia for the Welt am Sonntag, which were subsequently published in the collection Der Gelbe Bleistift. By the time has was based in Bangkok, he was coming across as a sort of dislocated, vaguely dandified figure, both implicated in the cycles of culture and fashion he wrote about, but also liminal to them. An interview with Harald Schmidt (imagine a German version of David Letterman) in 2001, around the time of 1979’s publication, beautifully illustrates just what a compelling, but unaccountable figure Kracht had become. Speaking in a very cultured but almost indifferent voice, and forming a sharp contrast with Schmidt’s up-beat commitment to entertainment, Kracht nevertheless touches on his desire to torture Goldie Hawn, describes Nick Hornby as looking like a penis, mistakes Schmidt’s Smarties for drugs, and elaborates on his hatred of Berlin. He also insists, despite Schmidt’s baffled protestations, that 1979 is a work of kitsch that no one should take that seriously.
This sense of inscrutability, of being impossible to nail down in terms of what, for writers of an earlier generation, would have been fairly well defined political positions, is clear in the book that really drives Georg Diez’s anxiety about Kracht. Kracht’s long and involved correspondence with David Woodard, an American composer, conceptual artist and cultural entrepreneur, whom the critic Thomas Schmidt likened to a background figure in a Thomas Pynchon novel, was published in 2011, the year before Imperium. At its center is Woodard’s fascination with the largely forgotten settlement Nueva Germania in Paraguay, a colony established in 1887 by two rabid anti-Semites, Bernard Förster and his wife Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, the philosopher’s sister. Kracht accompanied Woodard on a trip to what is left of the place, where descendents of the original settlers live in drastically reduced circumstances. As the correspondence reveals, Kracht at least humoured Woodard’s desire to advance the cultural profile of the community, and to build a miniature Bayreuth opera house on the site of what was once Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche’s residence. It would have made a great Werner Herzog movie.
It isn’t hard to see why Nueva Germania would have interested Kracht: the deluded desire to reach beyond the limits of a compromised modernity, the confusion of utopia and dystopia, tainted dreams turning into nightmares, the sense of an ideology slowly decaying in the Paraguayan jungle. The Kracht-Woodard correspondance must have coincided with the writing of Kracht’s third, and arguably most interesting novel. Ich werde heir sein im Sonnenschein und im Schatten (I will be here in Sunshine and Shadow) plays out some of these obsessions in its audacious reimagining of the relationships between fascism, communism and colonialism. The novel is a work of both speculative fiction, and science fiction. Instead of going back to Russia, Vladimir Lenin had stayed in Zurich, where he founded the Swiss Soviet Republic (Russia, by the way, has been devastated by a virus released by the Tunguska explosion). The Swiss Soviets have subsequently colonised large parts of Africa, and established a population base there for the republic’s endless war with German and English fascists. The novel opens in Neu-Bern, where an anonymous Partiekommissär, who is also African-Swiss, has received orders to pursue and arrest an enemy of the state, Colonel Brazhinsky. The atmosphere is apocalyptic. War is what gives meaning and purpose to the polity (or what is left of it), and no one has any tangible memory of an alternative, although we suspect that the African narrator’s blurred recollections of his childhood might offer one. The narrative, which is brief and brutal, unfolds like an inverted version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: instead of a European travelling into the Congo, we have an African travelling into the heart of a vacuous modernity (a huge mountain fortress under the Alps), which he ultimately escapes in a surreal conclusion that envisions liberation as a flight from and an undoing of the European war machine.
Like 1979, and like Imperium, the novel is about finding a way beyond the limits of an impoverished and repressive modernity. And while the novel doesn’t equate its narrator’s flight with totalitarianism or fanaticism, there is still something a bit insubstantial in the way it does imagine the undoing of both colonial culture and a militaristic modernity. Its concluding moments read like a fairy tale of innocence regained, although the vision of a Swiss architect, whom we are supposed to think is Le Corbusier, hanging himself from a lamppost and having his feet eaten by hyenas is a beautifully macabre touch. But against the histories of decolonisation that have played out over decades, if not centuries, the conclusion feels fantastic in a way that has severed itself from any tangible sort of historical reality.
But this is also part of the way Kracht works. His correspondence with Woodard reveals barely any evidence of his own political investments in the legacy of Nueva Germania, even though he is well aware of what a politically loaded subject it is. It seems fairly clear that, for Kracht, the flight from modernity, from consumerism, from the West, and from its fatal ideologies, is primarily an aesthetic experience, not a political one. Perhaps this refusal to tether aesthetics and politics in any obvious or direct way is what led Diez to accuse Kracht of rejecting democratic discourse. At the same time, one could argue, the melding of the political and the aesthetic was one of the things that drove the catastrophe of the German (half) century in the first place. Little wonder that one might want to avoid it in the interests of indeterminacy and the margins between commitments. This is where Kracht dwells, and it is what makes him such a weirdly compelling figure. How an Anglophone readership will respond to him, and just how much of his career will even be legible once Imperium begins to circulate through various English-speaking markets, remains to be seen.
August Bethmann and August Engelhardt, A Carefree Future: the New Gospel. (1898) Butler, NJ: Benedict Lust Publications, 1913.
Christian Kracht, 1979. Köln: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2001.
Christian Kracht, Faserland. Köln: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1995.
Christian Kracht, Ich werde heir sein im Sonnenschein und im Schatten. Köln: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2008.
Christian Kracht and David Woodard. Five Years. Briefwechsel 2004-2009. Volume 1. Hannover: Wehrhahn Verlag, 2011.
Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain. trans H.T. Lowe-Porter. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1958.
Sven Mönter, Following a South Sea Dream: August Engelhardt and the Sonnenorden. Auckland: University of Auckland, 2008.
Hubert Winkels ed. Christian Kracht trifft Wilhelm Raabe. Die Diskussion um Imperium und der Wilhelm Raabe-Literaturpreis 2012. Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2013.