cover image Imperium: A Fiction of the South Seas

Imperium: A Fiction of the South Seas

Christian Kracht, trans. from the German by Daniel Bowles. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22 (192p) ISBN 978-0-374-17524-5

Kracht's fascinating tale is an impressionistic portrait of a thumb-sucking, mad-for-coconuts German nudist. Set during the early 20th century and based on a real historical figure, the novel opens on a ship headed to the far-flung protectorate of New Pomerania in German New Guinea. Onboard is the shy, idealistic young August Engelhardt, who looks in horror at his "sallow, bristly, vulgar" countrymen as they gorge on heavy meals on deck. Disgusted by German society and its voracious appetite for meat and money, the vegetarian Engelhardt starts a coconut plantation on the remote South Seas island of Kabakon. There he subsists entirely on the "luscious, ingenious fruit," worships the sun sans clothes, and welcomes adherents to join his soul-cleansing retreat. Before descending into madness and revising his diet in a particularly ghoulish way, the lonely and loveless cocovore is repeatedly duped by con men, fakirs, and sensualists who profess to share his ascetic ideals but leave him more isolated than ever. Alternately languid and feverish, the narrative is as nutty as Engelhardt's prized foodstuff. The story bounces around in time, shifts in tone from philosophical to suspenseful to slapstick, features cameos from peculiar historical figures (such as the American inventor of Vegemite spread), and periodically widens its scope to consider the menacing rise of Nazism. Though Kracht, whose books have been translated into more than 25 languages, occasionally flaunts his research and succumbs to an overwrought style, he inventively captures the period's zeitgeist through one incurable eccentric. Agent: Markus Hoffmann, Regal Literary. (July)