Winner of the 2016 Swiss Literature Prize
Winner of the 2016 Hermann-Hesse Literature Prize
Translated from German by Daniel Bowles
Oh my, this is a strange one. Probably a much more enjoyable read if you’re a film aficionado, and probably a brilliant read if you’re a fan of silent movies. Well, I’m neither. Of course, I recognise Charlie Chaplin, but I’m guessing that fans of his will not like what Kracht makes of him …. not at all!
Other historical characters in these pages are Masahiko Amakasu and Alfred Hugenberg, ministers of film in their respective countries of Japan and Germany. This places the novel in the last days of the Weimar Republic. Japan is seeking to produce film content to rival that coming from Hollywood, and Germany agrees to send over a director to collaborate with them to do just that. Enter the (fictional) Swiss director Emil Nägeli, who has won multiple accolades for his first film, Die Windmühle (The Windmill), but is suffering from second film block.
Having received his brief, Nägeli sets off for Japan with a very large budget. The film is to serve as propaganda for the Nazis too. But, having met Fritz Lang, Lotte Eisner and other Jewish emigrés, on their way to exile in Paris, he decides to create an allegorical film warning of the horrors to come. He anticipates, too, a reunion with his fiancé, Ida, already in Japan, and, unbeknown to him having a passionate affair with Amakasu ….
Will it / can it end well?
Last year I reviewed Kracht’s Imperium, which took me two readings to really appreciate. I suspect the same is true of The Dead, because it is heavily stylised. Firstly it is structured like a Japanese Noh play. As explained to Chaplin:
The essential aspect of Noh theater is the concept of jo-ba-kyū, which states that the tempo of events is to begin slowly and auspiciously in the first act, the jo, then accelerate in the next act, the ha, and finally, in the kyū, reach its climax abruptly and as expeditiously as possible.
Which is an elegant way of saying, you have to stick with this. The novel is 195 pages long; structured in 3 acts so to speak, Nägeli gets the film commission on page 100; he meets Amakasu on page 151. The acceleration to the end is indeed rapid. In the meantime Kracht begins auspiciously enough, with a disgraced soldier committing seppuku, knowing his death will be filmed. Then he creates a photo montage in very short chapters, flitting between Japan and Germany examining the difficult childhoods of the two main male characters. (To establish a point of connection, I suppose.) Charlie Chaplin enters in Act Two, as does the tie-in with the assassination of the Japanese Prime Minister on 15 May 1932. Act Three moves to Hollywood for the final unravelling.
There isn’t a single word of dialogue in the whole novel. It is a silent movie. Every word in 3rd person indirect present – the unspooling of a film before the reader’s eye. Very clever, but it does have a distancing effect. I was a detached observer, with no emotional investment at all.
So who are the eponymous dead? The historical figures, Amakasu’s and Nägeli’s parental ghosts, the dead man from chapter one or the dead platinum-blond woman in the final chapter? (Who by the way is not Jean Harlow, whose face graces the dust jacket of the English translation.)
Or perhaps the dead are more worryingly the living?
The dead are profoundly lonesome creatures, there is no solidarity among them, they are all born alone, die, and are reborn alone as well.
Food for thought ….