cover image The Dead

The Dead

Christian Kracht, trans. from the German by Daniel Bowles. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25 (208p) ISBN 978-0-374-13967-4

The latest from Kracht (Imperium) is an uneven novel about film in the years leading up to World War II. Japanese film minister Masahiko Amakasu, tired of Japan’s lagging behind America on the film front, seeks to “establish a celluloid axis between Tokyo and Berlin.” In Germany in the early ’30s, when Nazism is on the rise, the production company Universum Film AG receives Amakasu’s letter and sees an opportunity to promote German superiority. It sends Swiss director Emil Nägeli to Japan with a huge sum of money to make the film. Once there, Nägeli meets up with his fiancée, Ida, a German actress, but plans for the film quickly spin out of control. Nearly three-quarters of the novel is dedicated to asides and backstories, such as Nägeli’s reveries about his recently deceased father. Some of these asides, like the one about Amakasu’s disturbing childhood, are excellent, while others, like the description of an encounter with Fritz Lang on a train, frustratingly derail the more intriguing main plot, which is rushed through in the last 50 pages. Meanwhile, important elements of the story, including the motivations of the characters, are handled obliquely or in passing, which frequently keeps it at arm’s length. Kracht’s strangely filmic prose (“A cherry blossom falls in death, dies in falling; it is perfect like this”) leads to some inspired moments and images, but readers may be disappointed by the novel’s evasive attitude toward the story. (July)