Christian Kracht’s novel Imperium (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) goes on sale this July, the first time the German author’s fiction has been made available to English-speaking audiences. Readers of the novel, which received a starred PW review and follows the adventures of August Engelhardt, a Teutonic explorer of the South Seas, should know that Kracht doesn’t always write about half-insane nudist vegans.
In Germany, Kracht’s debut novel, Faserland (1995), is “almost a generation-defining book,” according to Markus Hoffmann, Kracht’s U.S. agent. But that book was about the “ambivalent attitudes” of the “generation [of Germans] who grew up in ’70s and ’80s,” according to Hoffmann. So what led Kracht to travel back to 1902, when Engelhardt (based on a real-life figure), upon landing on the island of Kabakon, sets about creating a coconut-based utopia.
Kracht says he first became aware of Engelhardt when he came across a picture of him at a yard sale. “Almost nothing was known of [his] life when I first started researching him,” he says. “I wanted him to be a misguided hero, and to describe the rather Victorian (in [this book’s] case Wilhelminian) priggish moral constraints he was trying to escape from in Europe.” That meant a narrative with “violent deaths, clumsy sexual encounters, disease, and malnutrition,” and “even a scene inspired by Kubrick’s film The Shining.” Says Kracht: “It all spirals down into madness.”
Kracht was also inspired by Thomas Mann, “whose long-winded sentences and beautifully annoying prose it was great fun to emulate.” The style proved equally fun to translate, according to Daniel Bowles, the book’s English translator. “The ironic stance of the narrator and his unique, arch tone, so rare in German literature, is what drew me to Imperium in the first place,” he says.
Kracht, who says “English sometimes feels vastly superior to German,” is excited for his book to reach American audiences. “Very few German-language novels are ever... published in the U.S., so I feel very, very fortunate for this to have happened to Imperium.”