Winner of the Wilhelm Raabe Literature Prize
One of Publishers Weekly's Ten Best Books of 2015
A Huffington Post Best Fiction Book of the Year
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 of Kabakon. His goal: to establish 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.
In his first novel to be translated into English, internationally bestselling author Christian Kracht uses the outlandish details of Engelhardt’s life to craft a fable about the allure of extremism and its fundamental foolishness. “A Melvillean masterpiece of the South Seas” (Jonathan Sturgeon, Flavorwire), Imperium is funny, bizarre, shocking, and poignant-sometimes all on the same page.
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About the Author
Christian Kracht is a Swiss novelist, whose books have been translated into 27 languages. His previous novels include Faserland, 1979, and I Will Be Here in Sunshine and in Shadow. Imperium was the recipient of the 2012 Wilhelm Raabe literature prize.
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A Fiction of the South Seas
By Christian Kracht, Daniel Bowles
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2012 Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch
All rights reserved.
Beneath the long white clouds, beneath the resplendent sun, beneath the pale firmament could be heard, first, a prolonged tooting; then the ship's bell emphatically sounded the midday hour, and a Malaysian boy strode, gentle-footed and quiet, the length of the upper deck so as to wake with a circumspect squeeze of the shoulder those passengers who had drifted off to sleep again just after their lavish breakfast. Each morning, if one were traveling first class, Norddeutscher Lloyd, may God curse it, provided, through the skill of long-queued Chinese cooks, glorious Alphonso mangoes from Ceylon sliced open lengthwise and arranged artfully, fried eggs with bacon, along with chicken breast in a spicy marinade, prawns, aromatic rice, and a bold English porter beer. The very indulgence in the latter among those planters returning home, who — dressed in the white flannel of their guild — had slumped down onto the steamer chairs of the upper deck to sleep rather than retreating decorously to their beds, made for an exceedingly boorish, almost slovenly sight. 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.
Thus, or roughly so, ran the thoughts of young August Engelhardt as he crossed his thin legs, wiping a few imagined crumbs from his garb with the back of his hand and gazing out grimly over the bulwarks onto the oily, smooth sea. Frigate birds escorted the ship on the right and left; it was never farther from shore than a hundred nautical miles. Up and down they dove, these great, swallowtail-like hunters whose consummate play at flight and curious preying maneuvers every sailor in the South Seas loved. Engelhardt himself was enchanted by the birds of the Pacific Ocean, particularly by the New Zealand bellbird, Anthornis melanura. Once, as a boy, he had pored over them for hours upon hours in the folios, had studied them and their glorious, sweeping plumage, which shimmered in the blazing sun of his childhood imagination, tracing their beaks, their colorful feathers, with his little fingers. But now, as Engelhardt sailed under their flapping wings, he no longer had eyes for them, only for the burly planters who, having carried within themselves untreated tertiary syphilis for quite some time, were now returning to their plantations and had fallen asleep over the dryly and tediously written articles in the Tropenpflanzer or the Deutsche Kolonialzeitung, smacking their lips while dreaming of bare-breasted, dusky Negro girls.
The word planter didn't quite capture it, for this term presupposed dignity, a knowledgeable engagement with both nature and the august miracle of growth; nay, one had to speak of custodians in the literal sense, for they were precisely that: custodians of putative progress, these Philistines with their trimmed mustaches, styled in the fashion of Berlin or Munich from three years ago, beneath spider-veined nostrils that, for their part, quivered with every exhalation, and fluttering, spongy lips underneath, from which bubbles of spittle hung as if they would drift off into the breeze of their own accord, could they be but liberated from their labial adherence, like floating soap bubbles from a child's game.
The planters, in turn, peeped out from under their eyelids and saw sitting there, a bit off to the side, a trembling, barely twenty-five-year-old bundle of nerves with the melancholy eyes of a salamander, thin, slight, long-haired, wearing a shapeless ecru robe, with a long beard, the end of which swept uneasily over the collarless tunic, and they perhaps wondered for a moment about the significance of this man who at every other breakfast, indeed at every lunch, sat in a corner of the second-class salon alone at a table with a glass of juice before him, studiously dissecting one-half of a tropical fruit, then for dessert opening a paper package from which he spooned into a water glass some brown, powdery dust that by all indications consisted of pulverized soil. And then proceeded to eat this very dirt pudding! How eccentric! Most probably a preacher, clearly anemic, unsuited to life. But still essentially uninteresting. And especially futile to give further thought to the matter. Mentally, one gave him a year in the Pacific, shook one's head, closed one's eyelids, and fell back asleep mumbling incomprehensibly.
Those distinctly audible, creaking snores accompanied the German ship past the American Philippines, through the Strait of Luzon (there was no approaching Manila, because it was uncertain whether the war that had gripped the colony would still turn out well), through the waters of what seemed to be the infinitely large territory of the Dutch East Indies, and ultimately into the protectorate itself.
No, how he detested them. No, no, a thousand times no. Engelhardt opened and closed and reopened Schlickeysen's standard work Fruit and Bread, tried in vain to read a few paragraphs, and, with the stump of a pencil he perpetually carried with him in the pocket of his robe, jotted on the margin of a page a few notes that he himself could no longer decipher a moment later, despite having only just written them.
The ship rolled along calmly under a cloudless sky. At one point Engelhardt saw a pod of dolphins in the distance, but no sooner had he borrowed a pair of binoculars from the shipmaster than they had already plunged again into the unfathomable depths of the sea. Presently, the trim isle of Palau was reached, the mail sacks were delivered, and the island was left behind. At the next brief stop, in Yap, several outrigger canoes approached the great ship haltingly; there were offerings of half pigs and yams for sale, but neither the passengers nor the crew showed even the slightest interest in the peddled wares. Meanwhile, a canoe, while veering around, was seized by the eddy of the screws and pushed against the ship's side. The islander saved himself with a leap into the water, but the canoe split in twain, and the provisions, only moments ago raised aloft by brown hands toward the skies, now rolled about in the frothing water, and Engelhardt, leaning out far over the railing and looking down, clutching Schlickeysen's book with one hand, shuddered at the sight of a half pig that first floated, festooned with still-bleeding sinews on its flank, then sank down slowly into the indigo-blue ocean deep.
The Prinz Waldemar was a robust modern steamship of three thousand tons that traversed the Pacific Ocean toward Sydney, departing every twelve weeks from Hong Kong, and from there approached the German protectorate known as New Pomerania, then the Gazelle Peninsula, the new capital Herbertshöhe in Blanche Bay (and in that very place one of its two landing piers), whose easily navigable basin had been designated, in a fit of optimism, as a harbor.
Herbertshöhe was not Singapore; it essentially consisted of those two wooden jetties and a few intersecting broad boulevards where the trading posts of Forsayth, of Hernsheim & Company, and of Burns Philp had been erected, which, depending on one's point of view, might be regarded as rather impressive or less so. Then there was another fairly large building, that of the Jaluit Society, which traded guano in Yap and Palau, a police station, a church and its thoroughly picturesque cemetery, the Hotel Fürst Bismarck, the rival Hotel Deutscher Hof, a harbormaster's office, two or three taverns, a Chinatown hardly worth mentioning, a German Club, a small clinic under the provident supervision of Doctors Wind and Hagen, and the office of the governor, slightly elevated above the city on a hill covered in green grass that shone in the afternoon with an otherworldly gleam. But it was an up-and-coming, orderly, German town, and if one referred to it as a backwater, then it was only in ridicule, or because it rained so heavily that one couldn't make out anything at all thirty feet ahead.
After the downpours at midday the sun invariably shone, at three o'clock sharp, and in the chiaroscuro of the tall grass gloriously multicolored birds paraded about and preened their dripping plumage. Then, in the puddles of the avenues, beneath the coconut palms soaring high above, the native islander children romped about, barefoot, naked, many of them in short tattered pants (more holes than fabric); their crowns were graced by woolly hair that, through some curious whim of nature, was blond. They called Herbertshöhe Kokopo, which sounded much better and above all was more beautiful to say.
The German protectorates in the Pacific Ocean were without exception, in contrast to the African possessions of His Majesty Emperor Wilhelm II, completely superfluous. In this the experts agreed. The yield of copra, guano, and mother-of-pearl was far too inadequate to maintain so large an empire sprinkled around the infinitude of the Pacific Ocean. In distant Berlin, however, they spoke of the islands as precious gleaming pearls, strung along the chain of a necklace. Advocates and adversaries of the Pacific colonies could be found in droves, though it was primarily the still-nascent Social Democrats who most loudly questioned the relevance of the holdings in the South Seas.
Now, it is into this time that our chronicle falls, and if one wishes to narrate it, then one must bear in mind the future as well, for this account takes place at the very beginning of the twentieth century, which until just before the midpoint of its duration looked as if it would become the Century of the Germans, the century in which Germany would take its rightful place of honor and precedence at the table of nations, and from the perch of that new century, aged but a few years according to the lives of men, this appeared to be precisely the case. Thus, 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 and naturally, do pardon, consistent in nuce. At the moment, the latter is still just a pimply, cranky lad who gets innumerable smacks from his father. Just wait and see, though: he grows and grows.
And so, on board the Prinz Waldemar we find the young August Engelhardt from Nuremberg: beard-wearer, vegetarian, nudist. Some time ago he had published in Germany a book with the enthusiastic title A Carefree Future; now he was traveling to New Pomerania to purchase land for a coconut plantation — how much exactly and where, he did not yet know. He was to become a planter — not out of greed for profit, but out of a deeply held belief that he could change forever, by the force of his grand idea, this world that seemed to him so cruel, stupid, and horrible.
After having adjudged all other foodstuffs unclean by process of elimination, Engelhardt had abruptly stumbled upon the fruit of the coconut palm. No other possibility existed; Cocos nucifera was, as Engelhardt had realized on his own, the proverbial crown of creation; it was the fruit of Yggdrasil, world-tree. It 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 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 was also an excellent means of keeping away mosquitoes and flies with its smoke; in short, the coconut was perfect. Whosoever subsisted solely on it would become godly, would become immortal. August Engelhardt's most fervent wish, his destiny in fact, was to establish a colony of cocovores. He viewed himself at once as a prophet and a missionary. For this reason did he sail to the South Seas, which had lured infinitely many dreamers with its siren song of paradise.
Beneath its belching smokestack, the Prinz Waldemar maintained its ramrod-straight course toward Herbertshöhe. And while great tubs of leftover food were dumped twice daily into the sea from the quarterdeck, to the south the dark coast of Kaiser-Wilhelmsland drew past, the Finisterre Range, as Engelhardt's map had read forebodingly, and the unexplored, dangerous lands that lay beyond, where no German had yet set foot. One hundred thousand million coconut palms were growing there. Engelhardt had not been at all prepared for the almost painful beauty of this southern sea; sunbeams pierced the clouds in luminous shafts, and every evening peaceful mildness descended upon the coastlines and their terraced mountain chains, which extended, one after the other, into infinity in the sugary purple light of dusk.
A gentleman in a white tropical suit and pince-nez approached him, one who though corpulent did not seem quite as obtuse as his colleagues, and Engelhardt was momentarily seized by that almost pathological shyness that always possessed him whenever he met people who were completely convinced of the justness of their actions and existence. Did Engelhardt know what the recliner was called in which he and the other passengers dozed away their afternoons on deck? Engelhardt said no without a word, lowering his head to express his intention of immersing himself again in Schlickeysen, but the planter who was now introducing himself with a minuscule bow as Mr. Hartmut Otto came another step closer, as if he needed to confide an exceptionally important secret. Because of its extendable wooden leg rests, the deck chair was called, Engelhardt ought to sit down for this, please, the Bombay fornicator.
Engelhardt didn't quite understand and, moreover, found labored jokes of a carnal nature coarse, though he considered the sexual act something wholly natural, something absolutely ordained by God, not a part of a repressed, falsely understood manly discipline. He refrained from mentioning this, however, but gave the planter a somewhat baffled and scrutinizing look. Now it was up to Mr. Otto, as it were, to backpedal and, with a rapid succession of wiping hand gestures, to enumerate his dealings in the German protectorate. Let's forget it, he said, taking a seat on the lower part of the recliner with aplomb while loosening his shirt collar, which had grown slightly damp from humidity and perspiration. He was, he reported while artfully twirling the ends of his mustachio skyward with his fingers, on the hunt for Paradisaeidae, birds of paradise, whose feathers, Otto ought to know, currently fetched astronomical prices in the drawing rooms of the New World, from New York to Buenos Aires. Did the birds have to lose their lives in the process? Engelhardt now wanted to know, for he saw that Otto had made himself comfortable, leaving no further possibility of undertaking evasive action toward his book. Ideally, nota bene, the plumes were harvested from the animals while they were alive — certainly there were traders who'd merely have gathered up those decorative adornments that had fallen out onto the jungle floor from the rump of mature birds of paradise; but he, Otto, put no stock in such methods. Rather, the plumes must display traces of blood at the lower end of the quill, as a seal of quality, so to speak, and if they did not, he wouldn't buy them. Engelhardt grimaced — he easily became queasy — then the midday bell was ringing, and Otto took hold of his arm gently and firmly; but now he really must do him the honor of dining with him.
Excerpted from Imperium by Christian Kracht, Daniel Bowles. Copyright © 2012 Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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