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White Man Go Primitive: Christian Kracht’s “Imperium”

Well, how many times have we encountered this? White man or men flee civilization for the purity of the primitive and become primitive as their adventure overtakes them, plays out, forces them to question their ideas of so-called “primitive” peoples and societies. Too many novels, too many movies—so many it’s difficult to remember them all. Atavism: the dark, hidden aspects of the soul buried deeply inside us, though I’d argue that most of those repressions are not hidden away at all. Wouldn’t it be better simply to admit that man is rarely without flaws, and more often than not those weaknesses are right on the surface, visible to everyone?

This is what the publishers tell us about Christian Kracht’s wild novel, Imperium, described as “a fiction of the south seas,” including a photograph of an emaciated man: “The sarong-ed, mustachioed man in the photo to the right is August Englehardt. He stands on the beach on the Pacific Island of Kabakon, sometime in the early twentieth century. His pronounced ribs, leathery skin, long hair, and meager attire bespeak the intensity of his island lifestyle. Indeed, in 1902, sick of living among civilized society in Germany, Englehardt departed for Kabakon in order to live out his radical philosophy as a sun-worshiping nudist cocovore (that is, someone who subsists solely on coconuts) and to found a colony based on these ideals. After some initial success in attracting followers (many of whom became seriously ill), his island retreat briefly became a tourist attraction. But that was over and done with by the outbreak of World War I, and Englehardt died in 1919 at the age of forty-three.” I.E., he starved to death.

Kracht’s crazy story leaps free of the actual facts mentioned in the paragraph above, though I can’t say that the result is believable. Novelists, of course, are expected to use their imaginations and move away from actual fact. My problem with Imperium is that I was laughing most of the time, and I’m not at all certain that that is what Kracht imperiumkrachtintended. A comic version of Heart of Darkness? One thing Kracht has right. His story is peopled with “the flotsam and jetsam of the German Empire.” Even today, similar misfits—people who could never be a success at home—continue to gravitate toward the less-developed areas of the word, assuming it isn’t difficult to trick indigenous peoples who are totally lacking in the skills of western technology, basic economics—basic education, in fact. Sadly, you can still encounter these expatriates, hanging out in almost any bar in Third World countries. Which is only to say that colonialism lives.

Kracht provides Englehardt (whose name he uses in his novel) with one convincing aspect. He’s an innocent, easily duped by others. This happens to him when he’s still en route to the South Pacific, when he is first taken advantage of by a shrewd Hindu traveller who relieves him of most of his money. Then, after he arrives at his destination, in German New Guinea, he’s tricked into buying a worthless island. It doesn’t take very long for him to become malnourished, since he’s convinced himself that cocovorism will save the world:

Cocoanuts “grew at the highest point of the palm, facing the sun and our luminous lord God; it gave us water, milk, coconut oil, and nutritious pulp; unique in nature, it provided humankind with the element of selenium; from its fibers one wove mats, roofs, and ropes; from its trunk one built furniture and entire houses; from its pit one produced oil to drive away the darkness and to anoint the skin; even the hollowed-out, empty shell made an excellent vessel from which one could manufacture bowls, spoons, tankards, indeed even buttons; burning the empty shell, finally, was not only far superior to burning traditional firewood, but also an excellent means of keeping away mosquitoes and flies with its smoke; in short, the coconut was perfect. Whosoever subsided solely on it would become godly, would become immortal.”

Englehardt attracts other quacks and freaks, including one man who was convinced that he could survive on sunlight, “snapping like a carp so as to absorb sunlight into his person.” Others are not so benign but out to harm him. Englehardt, when frustrated, sucks his thumb and, in time, suffers from leprosy—acquired in the most gross-out way imaginable. The brief invasion of his island by supposed followers results in the commune being called a “naked Communist utopia” in one of the German newspapers back home. There’s even a scene involving auto-cannibalism, when Englehardt—in his final madness—devours one of his own fingers. So much for vegetarianism.

Had enough? Well, there are another ploys by Kracht that made me conclude that he’d pushed his buttons too many times. Although the facts about Englehardt state that he died at age forty-three, the author keeps him live much longer than that and connects him to German anti-Semitism during World War II. That would make Englehardt at least sixty years old, but, worse, the connection is in no way necessary to convince us that Englehardt was mad. That coupled with an intrusive narrator constantly talking things over with his reader (“And, oh, that’s right…” or “Now that we have endeavored to tell of our poor friend’s past”) lost me totally. Even the title, Imperium, suggests a wider-political context that does not fit the author’s characterization of August Englehardt.

Christian Kracht: Imperium

Trans. By Daniel Bowles

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 179 pp., $23

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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