Christian Kracht’s novel “Imperium” tells the story of a vegetarian nudist with control-freak tendencies who tries to found a commune in German New Guinea in the early 20th century. Complications ensue.
“Imperium: A Fiction of the South Seas”
by Christian Kracht, translated by Daniel Bowles
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 179 pp., $22
Swiss novelist Christian Kracht must have felt he’d the hit historical-fiction jackpot when he came across the story of August Engelhardt, a longhair vegetarian nudist who founded a coconut-centric commune in German New Guinea in 1902.
The resulting novel, “Imperium: A Fiction of the South Seas,” nabbed Germany’s prestigious Wilhelm Raabe Literature Prize in 2012. And it’s easy to see why.
It’s a comic fantasia on sinister themes, a baroque tour of a utopia gone pitifully wrong. In feistily ornate prose, Kracht savors Engelhardt’s high-minded follies while vividly conjuring the German colonial world he inhabited.
Kracht’s narrative strategies are as eccentric as his writing, whether he’s seeing a mosquito bite from the mosquito’s point of view or sneaking in cameo appearances by Hitler, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse (all identified by hint rather than name). Kracht’s barbed take on how easily idealism degenerates into control-freak excess drives the novel.
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The action unfolds on the island of New Pomerania (now New Britain, a part of Papua New Guinea) where Engelhardt hopes to establish his “colony of cocovores.” To his mind, the coconut is the answer to all of mankind’s problems. “It gave us water, milk, coconut oil and nutritious pulp,” he reflects. “From its fibers one wove mats, roofs, and ropes; from its trunk one built furniture and entire houses.”
There’s a megalomaniac side to Engelhardt’s character, as well as a desperate urge to escape German society, which he sees as “vulgar, cruel, hedonistic … rotting from the inside out.”
Engelhardt’s own character, however, doesn’t have much better to offer.
He’s jealous of any potential rival fellow utopias. He wants disciples to join him, but only if they follow him unquestioningly. And he’s appalled by the thought that nudism might lead to sex.
It’s not long before he’s disease-ridden and severely malnourished. The fact that he nibbles his fingernails (“the only animal protein he ingested from time to time”) is a sign, Kracht tells us, of worse things to come.
Engelhardt isn’t exactly fiscally responsible either: “He had begun to consider the possibility of no longer paying his debts because he of course had to begin rejecting the complex, pernicious structure of the capitalist system somewhere.”
By the time he starts thinking his blood is being replaced by coconut milk, he is regarded as a bona fide lunatic rather than mere local oddball. Something, the authorities decide, has to be done about him.
“Imperium” is a short novel, but its sweep is considerable. While Engelhardt’s case history may be singular, Kracht places it in the context of an approaching global convulsion — World War I — that wipes out sanity, order, convention and pragmatism as thoroughly as it does Engelhardt’s delusions.
There’s more than one murder plot in the book, and a wealth of tropical anecdote. (Bats, it turns out, stay cool by urinating on their wings and then flapping them to produce “evaporative cold.”)
Kracht’s writing, while occasionally convoluted, can be gorgeous. It’s a credit to Daniel Bowles that, as you make your way through the novel’s perverse extravagances, you always feel you’re reading an original maverick stylist, never a translation.