Imperium: A Fiction of the South Seas
Because I’d read that it’s a satire, I picked up Christian Kracht’s Imperium: A Fiction of the South Seas. At first it wasn’t that interesting but just weird enough to keep me reading, so it got relegated to my bedside table. For a couple of weeks, I would read until something really grossed me out, and then I’d put the book down and proceed to having extremely weird dreams.
The fiction is based on the life of a nudist from Nuremberg named August Engelhardt who died in German New Guinea in 1919 from malnutrition, having been unsuccessful at establishing a colony where people would subsist on sun and coconuts. It sounds like a wacky but kind of nice dream.
In the hands of Christian Kracht the details of the story become extremely unpleasant; his aim, the book flap explains, is to “craft a fable about the allure of extremism and its fundamental foolishness.” The foolishness comes across, but I didn’t see much allure.
From the very first page, August Engelhardt is an unpleasant character, the kind of ascetic who sneers at anyone enjoying anything or having fun. On a cruise ship, he sees his fellow passengers on the deck after breakfast as
“the buttons of their trousers, open at the fly, dangled loosely; sauce stains from saffron-yellow curries coated their vests. It was altogether insufferable. Sallow, bristly, vulgar Germans, resembling aardvarks, were lying there and waking slowly from their digestive naps: Germans at the global zenith of their influence.”
After this introduction, the narrator tells us that August’s story will serve as
“a stand-in, the tale of but a single German will now be told, of a romantic who was, as are so many of this species, a thwarted artist; and if at times, in the course of things, parallels arise with a later German romantic and vegetarian who perhaps ought to have remained at his easel, then this is entirely intentional.”
Since the reader has quickly grown to despise August, this seems like it will be an easy task. But August is trying to read a book when one of the German planters, Otto, comes up to him and starts telling him that the deck chairs are called “Bombay fornicators” and that he sells feathers from dead birds of paradise, feathers that must have blood at the tip to prove they were plucked from a live animal, rather than fallen out naturally. There’s a big to-do over Otto inviting August to lunch and August refusing the meat dishes, and the reader is left unsure which character to despise most.
We go on following August, however, and when it seems he has lost all his books, we might be inclined to be sympathetic. Except that on the next page we find out they weren’t lost at all, but were immediately produced by the stevedores on his ship when he finally remembers to tip them. Later, when he is robbed by a traveling companion, August realizes that “he had revealed everything to a complete stranger, to a passing acquaintance, in the belief that frugivorism created an invisible bond of solidarity between men.” He trusts no one and is inevitably conned by those he wouldn’t have imagined capable of it, like the woman, Queen Emma, who sells him a plantation. Every exchange he participates in with another human being has something grotesque or unpleasant about it, like the small talk Queen Emma feels obliged to make about the fruit bats: “during high heat…the animals urinated over their own wings, and the evaporative cold produced by flapping then provided the desired cooling effect.”
His first landing on the island where he intends to establish a coconut plantation is described in a grand and sarcastic manner:
“He leapt from canoe into water, waded the last few yards to the shore, and fell to hi knees in the sand, so overcome was he; and for the black men in the boat and the few natives who had found their way to the beach with a certain phlegmatic curiosity (one of them even wore a bone fragment in his lower lip, as though he were parodying himself and his race), it looked as if a pious man of God were praying there before them; it might remind us civilized peoples of a depiction of the landing of the conquistador Hernan Cortes on the virginal shore of San Juan de Ulua, perhaps painted by turns—if this were even possible—by El Greco and Gauguin, each of whom, with an expressive, jagged stroke of the brush, once more conferred upon the kneeling conquerer Engelhardt the ascetic features of Jesus Christ.
Thus, the seizure of the island Kabakon by our friend looked quite different depending on the viewpoint from which one observed the scenario and who one actually was.”
The natives help August build a hut and give him food and clothing, and the narrator “cannot avoid saying that the inhabitants of Kabakon knew nothing whatsoever of the fact that the little island on which they had lived for as long as anyone could remember suddenly no longer belonged to them.” August is so incompetent, however, that they do not consider him a threat, but volunteer to help him. A young native boy, Makeli, shows him where he can go and he teaches him to read German. Presently, a vegetarian named Halsey comes along and makes friendly overtures to August by asking him for his opinion about names for his vegetable paste. August responds by inviting him to live naked with him on his island and “try subsisting exclusively on coconuts for three months.” Halsey tells August that he is, “like all romantics, merely an egoist of a Schopenhauerian persuasion” and leaves, taking with him his recipe for vegemite.
In Part Two, things go from bad to worse. August gets a disciple, Heinrich Aueckens, from Heligoland, but he does not turn out to be a true believer, ogling August and finally raping Makeli, after which we are told “whether Engelhardt beat the anti-Semite over the head with a coconut himself, or whether Aueckens, wandering in that same grove of palms where he had violated young Makeli, was accidentally struck dead by a falling fruit, or whether the native boy’s hand raised a stone in self-defense—this tends to vanish in the fog of narrative uncertainty.”
August visits a neighboring island where a “light-eater and practitioner of prana” is supposed to be subsisting on light alone, but finds him a cheater and, in fact, the same traveling companion who had robbed him on the occasion of their first acquaintance.
Finally another disciple arrives with a piano, a vegetarian German named Max Lutzow. He meets August, who has been described at length as “just then finally cutting his toenails after many months of their sun-induced growth…they had grown out several inches from his feet such that he had tripped several times on exposed tree roots and larger conches.”
It seems that August
“felt a great and profound respect for artists and their abilities; the fact that he had never been able to muster up either the talent or the discipline to create something like real art provoked a feeling that almost bordered on envy. While squinting his eyes at the horizon, he pondered whether his stay on Kabakon might not indeed be regarded as a work of art. Suddenly the thought occurred to him that possibly he himself was his own artistic artifact and that perhaps the paintings and sculptures exhibited in museums or the performances of famous operas constituted a completely outmoded conception of art—indeed, that only through his, Engelhardt’s, existence was the divide between art and life bridged. He smiled again, dispatching this delectable, solipsistic fancy into a secret and remote corner of his edifice of ideas, sat up, and opened a coconut while inspecting the wounds on his legs, which, oozing, had grown ever larger in recent weeks.”
Lutzow’s letters home, with “descriptions of having established a naked Communist utopia under palm trees” inspire more German pilgrims to set sale for the south seas, but instead of welcoming them, August lets them languish and die of malaria, camped in the meadows and on the beach in Rabaul, where the big ships dock. When Lutzow persuades August to go and talk to the governor about the would-be disciples, he can’t even stand inside the man’s porch without us having to hear about how “his garb was suddenly stained yellow by a load of earwax that had dissolved into a flow.” After the governor makes August agree to borrow against the plantation’s future “profits” to pay to send the Germans back to their own country, August and Max sail home to Kabakon, but things are not the same.
August finally drives Max off the island. His leaving is described by the narrator as such: “Lutzow acted most fairly toward his friend, and so his morning exodus from Kabakon, though it doesn’t quite seem like it to him, is in fact a respectable course of action and not some slithering away.”
After Max has left, August succeeds in alienating everyone who was ever prepared to tolerate him, even the natives. We’re told that he has contracted leprosy and then, because that’s not horrible enough on its own, that “the ostensible epicenter of infection lay somewhere within the perfect fifth formed by the C and G keys on Lutzow’s piano, where a scab loosened from the Tolai chief’s leprous finger remained, which Engelhardt a short time later took for his own and, as a matter of routine and reflect, stuck in his mouth without bearing in mind or imagining that there were several bleeding spots in his oral cavity and on the gums, so-called canker sores.”
We’re left with a final image of August and Makeli eating their own fingers and thumbs and then August, alone, “an attraction for voyagers in the South Seas who visit him as one might a wild animal in the zoo.” There’s a fantasy epilogue in which August is discovered living in a cave and the action of the novel starts all over again, people devouring their own fingernails at his story and a scene of passengers falling asleep after a big ship’s breakfast evoking disgust in the witnesses.
Imperium is one of the most unpleasant books I have ever read, the kind of satire nobody likes and I think nobody benefits from, since it suggests no alternatives for human behavior but shows us mired in a continuing morass of meat, malice and meanness.