Winner of the 2012 Wilhelm Raabe Literature Prize
Translated from German by Daniel Bowles
Winner of the 2016 Kurt and Helen Wolff Translation Prize
Once upon a time there was a man who believed that one could live on coconuts alone. He set off from Germany to establish a colony in the Bismarck Archipelago (nowadays known as Papua New Guinea) where he and a select number of followers would prove the theory and live happily ever after.
Not a fairy tale. Fact, apart from the happy ending, as we shall see.
Kracht’s novel Imperium begins at a point of departure. August Engelhardt is sailing towards his new home in the South Seas. As a vegetarian on a ship full of well-nourished meat-eating Germans, he is somewhat unique.
The planters, in turn, peeped out from under their eyelids and saw sitting there, a bit off to the side, a trembling, barely twenty-five- year-old bundle of nerves with the melancholy eyes of a salamander, thin, slight, long-haired, wearing a shapeless ecru robe, with a long beard, the end of which swept uneasily over the collarless tunic, and they perhaps wondered for a moment about the significance of this man who at every other breakfast, indeed at every lunch, sat in the corner of the second-class salon alone at a table with a glass of juice before him, studiously dissecting one-half of a tropical fruit, then for dessert opening a paper package from which he spooned into a water glass some brown, powdery dust that by all indications consisted of pulverized soil. And then proceeded to eat this very dirt pudding! How eccentric!
First impressions count and the vulnerability of Engelhardt is what counted to me in this first description of him. And then when I was told of his worries for the thousands of books he was transporting with himself, I was on his side. It’s exactly what the narrator intends (at the beginning of the novel at least). After all, Engelhardt’s travelling fellows are:
Sallow, bristly, vulgar Germans, ressembling aardvarks … lying there and waking slowly from their digestive naps: Germans at the global zenith of their influence.
Packs a punch our 3rd person omniscient narrator, doesn’t he? Fans of Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World will recognise the detached ironic style, and, indeed, Kracht consulted with Kehlmann on the narrative voice, although I would say that Kracht’s narrator is more sardonic than ironic. There are some very hard edges at times.
Were was I? Travelling with the vulnerable Engelhardt and his books and his inheritance to Kakoran. Exotic locations and mishaps aplenty: con merchants can spot a soft target at a thousand paces and it’s a wonder Engelhardt makes it to his destination with any assets at all! But he does get there and purchases a small island and coconut plantation – at what he thinks is a bargain price but we know, thanks to our omniscient narrator, that it is anything but.
Still Engelhardt is where he wants to be. And he founds his colony on Kakoran. The native population are welcoming, and help him establish himself. In turn, he persuades them to reduce their meat intake (at least when he is around). Kakoran may be at the furthest ends of the earth, but Engelhardt doesn’t lack followers. In fact, there is one bizarre scene where he has to turn people away – the island just cannot support that many!
This, however, is not an idyll. Not everyone who visits the island leaves it alive ….
And, of course, Engelhardt simply thrives on his strict diet of coconuts, doesn’t he? As well as can be expected. Exactly what that does to a body and mind becomes all too apparent throughout the course of the novel. Not that Kracht lays it on thickly. Instead he adds what feels like incidental commentary of Engelhardt’s physical state whenever he is seen by another person. The result is almost a slow motion horror movie as Engelhardt disintegrates before our eyes. The fact that he survives as long as he does means that he must have got his protein from somewhere …. And he did. The revelation is in one of those incidental details. I’ll leave you to discover it for yourself.
Because I do recommend this book despite the controversy that surrounded it on publication. (Covered here on Love German Books.) In my opinion, the accusation is as nonsensical as that condemning Conrad as a racist for writing Heart of Darkness.
Imperium is a historical novel, albeit one that plays loosely with the facts. It is a satire, not only of the German aardvarks mentioned above, but also of its main protagonist and his idealistic, aesthetic ways. There’s adventure, comedy, horror, and literary reference aplenty. With never a dull moment, not even when Engelhardt is discussing his ideology with others. That’s all down to the sardonic narrative voice. The novel just flies, despite having no dialogue at all.
It’s not often I quote blurb, but in this case:
Playing with the tropes of classic adventure tales such as Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe, Kracht’s novel … is funny, bizarre, shocking, and poignant. His allusions are misleading, his historical time line is twisted, his narrator is unreliable – and the result is a novel that is a cabinet of mirrors, a maze pitted with trapdoors. Both a provocative satire and a serious meditation on the fragility and audacity of human activity, Imperium is impossible to categorize and utterly unlike anything you’ve read before.
Except perhaps Kehlmann’s Measuring The World.