Imperium: A fiction of the south seas by Christian Kracht
Translated by Daniel Bowles
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Released: Aug. 2015
Reviewed by Melanie Page
In 1902 August Engelhardt decided he had enough of the restrictive life in Germany and set sail for the south seas to live as a nudist vegetarian in one of Germany’s colonies on the island of Kabakon. Engelhardt worshipped coconuts, saying that because they grew high up in trees, close to the sun, that they were sacred and could cure any ailment. Engelhardt tried to start a cult called “The Order of the Sun” to gather like-minded people on his island. As you might have guessed, many people died. What you may not have guess is that August Engelhardt was a real guy.
I learned about Imperium from a segment on NPR and had to read more. The author, Christian Kracht, learned a bit about August Engelhardt and tried to find more. In the NPR story, Kracht notes, “The only thing I could find was a thesis by a student at the University of Auckland. So I went and met him in New Zealand, but somehow it wasn't enough." Engelhardt also published bits and pieces about his coconut community experiment, but not much more is out there. Based on what I’ve read, people don’t agree on many of the details anyway. So, why not fictionalize the story? Imperium is fiction based on the life of Engelhardt. The following is all information from Imperium and not necessarily true details about the life of August Engelhardt.
|Photo from NPR|
After reading a book encouraging a fruit-only diet, Engelhardt disavows all other food. He gets on a ship leaving Germany and heads for a German colony in the tropical south called Herbertshohe. The characters in Imperium are richly developed, even if they only play a minor role. For instance, Emma Forsayth is a shrewd businesswoman who discusses real estate opportunities with Engelhardt. He needs to find a way to sustain himself in the tropics. Here is her thought process:
“So he wished to buy a plantation? She had exactly the thing for him. A little island! Yet wouldn’t Engelhardt perhaps first want to explore the interior and think about whether he might like a larger-scale plantation there, albeit in a hard-to-reach location? Depending on the weather, a four- or five-day journey away, that is, around sixty miles from Herbertshohe as the crow flies, there was a coconut planting of some twenty-five hundred acres whose owner...had gone mad and doused himself, his family, and three black employees with pitch and set them alight. That plantation could be had, considering its size, for nearly nothing, since the planter’s will, written in a state of complete mental barbarism, could not be validated (Kill them all could be read in it) and the estate thus passed to the German Reich, and in particular to the firm Forsayth & Company, the director of which was sitting here before him.”
Even though Emma is discussing a business transaction to get Engelhardt set up with his new life, there are so many details revealed here. I believe she can tell Engelhardt is a nutbar; the perfect place for him is 60 miles away from everyone else on an island where another nutbar, who killed his family, lived. Wouldn’t that be great?! Truthfully, I laughed quite a bit when I read the passage. There are other lengthy passages much like the one quoted above. The descriptions are specific and keep going in a strange method of humor that is not common in American fiction.
As the years pass, Engelhardt gets crazier. It’s not hard to believe; his body is trying to function on coconuts. He is severely malnourished. Well, except the toenails and scabs he eats. Did I mention that? Never before in my life have I wanted to actually throw up while reading a book, but Imperium almost got the lunch out of me, especially when characters start suffering from leprosy and all those scabs are laying around. Who can tell which scabs are Engelhardt’s and whose are someone else’s? Enjoy! Nom nom nom *heave*
Engelhardt also becomes paranoid. The narrator suggests our main character may have murdered some people, and he starts digging huge holes on the island, covering them with sticks and leaves. For who, we don’t learn, but I get nervous every time someone shows up for a visit. According to sources, the real August Engelhardt wanted people on the island with him to start a community. In the book, however, people show up on Herbertshohe looking for Engelhardt, who is, of course, on his island 60 miles away. They lay on the beach for two weeks, getting sick and malnourished. When Engelhardt discovers he has followers, he freaks out and runs away. All followers are sent back to Germany. Sources say followers did try to join the real Engelhardt, but most of them died (there are lots of ways to die in the early 1900s in a tropical environment) and the government made people pay a deposit to join Engelhardt to cover their medical and travel expenses when they needed to be returned to Germany because they were nearly dead.
Overall, Imperium is a funny serious book. The sentences are dense (I had to turn to a dictionary many times) and grammatically complex, so it may not be a tale for everyone. However, if you finish the book, you will come away richer for it, and not in the way that people do when they finish Moby Dick only to say they read it. You’ll actually get something out of the experience.
Melanie Page has an MFA from the University of Notre Dame and is an adjunct instructor in Indiana. She is the creator of Grab the Lapels, a site that publishes book reviews and interviews of folks who identify as women at grabthelapels.com.