I’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.”