Christian Kracht’s most recent novel Imperium hit the shelves two years ago around this time, giving the German press its excuse-of-the-week to get its collective panties in a bunch. The controversy over whether Kracht is a “Türsteher der rechten Gedanken” (“doorman for right-wing thinking”), as Georg Diez memorably put it in a review for Der Spiegel, is an interesting moment in German press discourse, and anyone who is interested can find relevant reviews glossed at Perlentaucher, or get their hands on the volume Christian Kracht trifft Wilhelm Raabe. The book is a helpful document of the discussion about the novel in 2012, leading up to the moment when Kracht was awarded the Wilhelm Raabe Literature Prize for the novel.
It seems appropriate that this novel should be awarded this particular prize. Kracht sets his novel in the German colonies and thus confronts a subject that threads its way tantalizingly, if sometimes obliquely, through texts such as Abu Telfan, Zum wilden Mann, and Stopfkuchen. Kracht’s style in this novel, which vaguely parodies Wilhelmine era literature, may have been a disappointment for Andreas Fanizadeh in the TAZ, but not for me, as I am admittedly something of a sucker for that sort of writing (even as a parody).
Imperium presents a panorama of radicals of various stripes seeking routes out of bourgeois German society. At the center is the historical figure August Engelhardt, who was a member of what is loosely called the Lebensreformbewegung who co-authored the book Eine sorgenfreie Zukunft (A Future Free of Worries) with essays on freeing ourselves from worries about clothing, shelter, and food. The novel follows Engelhardt’s attempt to found a utopian colony of people who eat only coconuts in German New Guinea, an experiment that the narrator casts as explicitly prophetic for Germany’s future over the first half of the twentieth century. An explicit parallel is drawn to Hitler early in the novel, and our attention is drawn to both the seeds of actual history but also to the possibilities of an alternative future (something that got lost in the furor over the novel in 2012). One of the things that makes the novel both intriguing and irritating to read is the intrusiveness of the comparisons. The novel deliberately takes over the top the conceit of much historical fiction to be really about the present moment.
Ultimately what makes the novel particularly worth reading is precisely the interplay between subsequent history and alternative futures, with the act of consumption as a fulcrum. Engelhardt and the characters around him are invested in projects of transcendence through consumption. Engelhardt sees coconuts as a path for humans to achieve divinity, they are “die sprichwörtliche Krone der Schöpfung, sie war die Frucht des Weltenbaumes Yggdrasil” (“the literal crown of creation, it was the fruit of the world tree Yggrdrasil” 19) – Yggdrasil being a symbol familiar to readers of Raabe. It’s a transcendence the leads back to nature, as Engelhardt sees in the coconut the raw materials for everything one needs in life – building materials, tools, materials for burning, etc. But in a key scene he meets Edward Halsey, who is on the way to inventing Vegemite. The two end up in an argument because Halsey’s “Vegetarismus sei aus einer eher puritanischen Tradition erwachsen und würde in einem pragmatischen und vor allem dem Kapitalismus zugewandten Realismus münden” (“vegetariansim grew more from a puritanical tradition and was led especially to a realism oriented towards capitalism,” 108-109). Both represent compromised visions of vegetarian utopianism: on the one side Engelhardt as an ascetic whose project is undone by the subtle violence and moral absolutism of his project, and Halsey, who wants to realize a vegetarian utopia through capitalistic channels. And yes, Halsey is yet another instance in German literary history of America as the space onto which crass capitalism is projected.
If we take the novel to be an indictment of utopian thinking, even as such utopianism is brought together with what would turn out to be one the twentieth century’s most catastrophic set of politics, then we’ve missed what is interesting about Imperium. What is compelling about the novel instead is its exploration of the paradoxes intrinsic to the various drop-outs who appear on its narrative horizon.