A Fiction of the South Seas
An outrageous, fantastical, uncategorizable novel of obsession, adventure, and coconuts
In 1902, a radical vegetarian and nudist from Nuremberg named August Engelhardt set sail for what was then called the Bismarck Archipelago. His destination: the island Kabakon. His goal: to found a colony based on worship of the sun and coconuts. His malnourished body was found on the beach on Kabakon in 1919; he was forty-three years old.
Christian Kracht's Imperium uses the outlandish details of Engelhardt's life to craft a fable about the allure of extremism and its fundamental foolishness. Engelhardt is at once a sympathetic outsider—mocked, misunderstood, physically assaulted—and a rigid ideologue, and his misguided notions of purity and his spiral into madness presage the horrors of the mid-twentieth century.
Playing with the tropes of classic adventure tales like Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe, Kracht's novel, an international bestseller, is funny, bizarre, shocking, and poignant—sometimes all on the same page. His allusions are misleading, his historical time lines are twisted, his narrator is unreliable—and the result is a novel that is also a mirror cabinet and 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.
Kracht's fascinating tale is an impressionistic portrait of a thumb-sucking, mad-for-coconuts German nudist. Set during the early 20th century and based on a real historical figure, the novel opens on a ship headed to the far-flung protectorate of New Pomerania in German New Guinea. Onboard is the shy, idealistic young August Engelhardt, who looks in horror at his "sallow, bristly, vulgar" countrymen as they gorge on heavy meals on deck. Disgusted by German society and its voracious appetite for meat and money, the vegetarian Engelhardt starts a coconut plantation on the remote South Seas island of Kabakon. There he subsists entirely on the "luscious, ingenious fruit," worships the sun sans clothes, and welcomes adherents to join his soul-cleansing retreat. Before descending into madness and revising his diet in a particularly ghoulish way, the lonely and loveless cocovore is repeatedly duped by con men, fakirs, and sensualists who profess to share his ascetic ideals but leave him more isolated than ever. Alternately languid and feverish, the narrative is as nutty as Engelhardt's prized foodstuff. The story bounces around in time, shifts in tone from philosophical to suspenseful to slapstick, features cameos from peculiar historical figures (such as the American inventor of Vegemite spread), and periodically widens its scope to consider the menacing rise of Nazism. Though Kracht, whose books have been translated into more than 25 languages, occasionally flaunts his research and succumbs to an overwrought style, he inventively captures the period's zeitgeist through one incurable eccentric.