Christian Kracht’s ‘Imperium’ is a Melvillean Masterpiece of the South Seas

Long of toenail and hair and beard, the eccentric August Engelhardt shunned clothing and subsisted entirely on coconuts; he was, in other words, a nudist and cocovore. He was also a subject of the German Empire at the turn of the twentieth century, a privilege that gave him the right to purchase land in what was then German New Guinea. His expressed purpose? To establish a nudist colony of coconut-devouring sun-worshippers on the island of Kabakon.

Unfortunately, Engelhardt’s devotion to a “carefree” future safe from the alienating effects of meat, capitalism, clothing, or any other trapping of life in the Industrial Age made it difficult for him to lure followers to his isolated utopia in the South Seas. He instead ruled an empire of one, from 1902 through the first World War, although he did share the island with three or four dozen melanesians and the occasional stray party of confused Germans.

This Engelhardt — this “wispy little Jesus” — is the subject of Christian Kracht’s ingenious Imperium, a self-described “fiction of the South Seas.” A strange, Mephistophelian novel, Kracht’s book is also, by several units of some arcane nautical measurement, one of the slyest and most original works of the last several years. And — thanks to Daniel Bowles — it’s one of the best translated.

Still, it’s hard to describe Kracht’s approach to the novel in terms of peers; we don’t have fiction like this in North America. With narration as dry as soil — which, I should mention, Engelhardt drinks like coffee — Kracht comes across as a less irreverent Michel Houellebecq who nonetheless writes more elegant, funnier sentences, and who (at least in this case) is devoted to ultra-detailed historical fiction that paradoxically plays loose with history.

It makes sense because Imperium’s is a history devoted not strictly to winners or victims but instead to free-spirited losers, social misfits, and ideological fanatics. Engelhardt, the craziest of them all, attracts these lonely nonconformists like flies to a leprous wound. Take the American vegetarian Halsey, a Seventh-day Adventist who, exiled by the Kellogg brothers to Australia, dreams of inventing a vegetable paste that would wean the American consumer off animal products. (One guess as to what he plans to call it.) Or the probably invented mystic Govindarajan, who convinces Engelhardt, a fellow frugivore, that his religious adulation for the coconut makes him a theophage. To this, Engelhardt responds with awe:

This he let resound for a moment in silence and then uttered the expression again into the stillness of midmorning, which was punctuated only by the clicking of the tracks: God-eater. Devourer of God.

Pages later Govindarajan and Engelhardt take a room together in what amounts to a wholly alienated reference to Moby-Dick. In fact, Imperium abounds with such references; it treats its own literary allusions with a refreshing shrug.

Whatever its author’s protestations, though — no matter how fun it is to read — Imperium is still a decidedly political novel, albeit one buried under a horizon of pristine sentences and well-executed theatrics. Kracht, a Swiss who writes in German and lives in Los Angeles, seems to eschew imaginative and political borders. Nevertheless, he is best known in Germany, where his first novel, the controversial Faserland, drew comparisons to the work of Bret Easton Ellis. Now he’s somewhere else, on some island perhaps, far away from where he began.

In Germany, too, Imperium has been accused of purveying “rightist thought” — it’s hard to see why. Engelhardt begins the novel with the fanatical assumption that so-called “civilized” people who eat meat are in the “preliminary stage of anthropophagy”; he ends by eating himself slowly, starting with his own boogers. On the other hand, the novel never spares the racist machinations of colonialist bureaucracy, which, by the end, the formerly anti-racist Engelhardt has come to emulate. In other words: neither the state nor a fanatical, organicist politics is spared in Imperium — which is precisely as comedic as it is politically acute.

By the novel’s conclusion, we have to ask: is the monomaniac Engelhardt, with his endless supply of coconut milk, really that estranged from the modern day Brooklynite? Kracht’s book begins with an epigraph from André Gide’s Narcissus: A Theory of the Symbol, a book that explains how Narcissus refused to kiss his own image in the water (for fear that he would destroy it). His only solace was to contemplate himself forever. In doing so, as the story goes, Narcissus metamorphoses into a flower, or what Gide calls “a symbol that grows.” Kracht’s Engelhardt — the nudist, the cocovore, the sun-worshipping, self-consuming fanatic — expired because he couldn’t avert his gaze from himself, from his own Imperium, in order to view the disaster swarming all around him. Sound like anyone you know?