First things first: this book is great and you should read it. I found it deeply enjoyable and odd in a a manner reminiscent of Fitzcarraldo: a story of absolutely genius/idiotic zeal.
Second things second: if you don’t read this review, at least read the Wikipedia description of the book because if it doesn’t make you want to read it, I just don’t know what to say to you.
Imperium is a 2012 satiric novel by the Swiss writer Christian Kracht. It recounts the story of August Engelhardt, a German who in the early 20th century founded a religious order in German New Guinea based on nudism and a diet consisting solely of coconuts. The fictionalized narrative is an ironic pastiche.
Imperium is another version of history. Is it the true story of what actually happened to August Engelhardt, erstwhile coconut-fancier and daydreamer? The answer is well, maybe? This doesn’t claim to be an encyclopaedic retelling of the man’s life – instead it uses the bits and pieces that are known and works upon them in a sort of hallucinogenic fugue.
The story, put plainly, is this: man enamoured of coconuts – an offshoot of vegetarianism – moves to a city in a far-flung German protectorate called Herbertshöhe and proceeds to establish his colony.
What sort of a place was the setting for this colony? Well.
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.
So the coconut paradise is set up – more or less – and this idealistic man and reality begin to chafe. Throughout the novel, there’s the feeling that Engelhardt is almost a holy fool: he’s easily gulled by conmen and those experienced in colonial graft. He inexplicably continues on his mission, and is joined by would-be adherents, bearing honour and ill will both.
Engelhardt was overwhelmed by that realization. Indeed, it cut him to the proverbial quick and began to take effect there as if it were a resounding, humming field of energy. Yes, indeed, the coconut—the delectable thought now revealed itself to him—was in truth the theosophical grail! The open shell with the meat and the sweet milk within was thus not just a symbol for, but in actual fact the body and blood of Christ.
This has an impact on the man’s health to an extent almost as profound as his all-coconut diet.
There’s other characters here, and they’re drawn deftly, though without as much effort as is put into the main man. There’s a soft touch, particularly with those who actually existed, and there’s the distinct feeling that some of the additions are trials sent to a Pacific Job. The figures within sometimes appear a little indefinite, but I suspect that’s a conscious choice: there’s a vaguely dehydrated, heat-haze aura to the proceedings here.
The novel has an excellent way of attaching Engelhardt’s journey farther from civilisation to larger developments in the world he longs to escape. Time and time again, he runs across – unknowing! – larger figures in 20th century history. His life both crosses over and parallels those of other notables – from Einstein to the creator of Vegemite to Thomas Mann to the first Maori NZ MP, to… Hitler? – in a manner that expresses how interconnected the world was becoming at this juncture, despite the novel’s key figure’s attempt to isolate himself.
Naturally, this includes commentary on the rise of fascism across the globe, and of antisemitism. Despite isolating himself, Engelhardt cannot escape the greater machinations of the world no matter how secluded, how mosquito-eaten his surroundings. The connectivity of the globe increases, despite his reticence. The problem is that he loses his ability to adapt to the world, and views his surrounds through the cracked prisms of self-doubt and self-belief. He runs up debts he’ll never pay and encourages adherents he cannot transform. He is liberated and broken upon the wheel of his coconut dreams, and Kracht creates an excellent portrait of someone enslaved to their dream.
Again, if you’ve read the Wikipedia description of this book, you don’t need my words to push you towards it. Make the leap: you may not transition to the ranks of god-eating cocovores but you will have a good time.