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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Christian Kracht

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To purchase Imperium

Title: Imperium
Author: Christian Kracht
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 242 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Imperium - US
Imperium - UK
Imperium - Canada
Imperium - Deutschland
Imperium - France
Imperium - Italia
Imperium - España
  • A Fiction of the South Seas
  • German title: Imperium
  • Translated by Daniel Bowles

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Our Assessment:

B : playful variation on the historical/South-Seas-adventure novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ A 11/2/2012 Felicitas von Lovenberg
NZZ . 6/3/2012 Roman Bucheli
The NY Times Book Rev. . 26/7/2015 Henry Alford
Wall St. Journal . 10/7/2015 Sam Sacks
World Lit. Today . 11-12/2015 Ulf Zimmermann
Die Zeit . 9/2/2012 Adam Soboczynski

  From the Reviews:
  • "Das eigentliche Abenteuer von Imperium liegt in der Atmosphäre: bestes deutsches neunzehntes Jahrhundert, aufgemischt von den Romanen Mark Twains, Jack Londons und Joseph Conrads ebenso wie von dem Filmklassiker African Queen, der ja auch in den Krieg mündet. Sein kinematographisches Zeitrafferverfahren stellt der Roman regelrecht aus. (...) Dass das alles so mühelos klappt, verdankt sich dem Stil, den Kracht für die aberwitzige Aussteiger-Story gewählt hat." - Felicitas von Lovenberg, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Das alles soll den Lesern zu verstehen geben: Hier spielt einer mit dem Stoff, mit seinen Figuren, auch mit seinem Publikum. Mit spitzen Fingern holt er die Dämonen aus der Zeitgeschichte, drapiert sie in gespenstische Harmlosigkeit und verkleinert sie zu Spottfiguren. Auch sonst wird alles mit Ironie unterfüttert, selbst die eigene erzählerische Ambition wird mit demonstrativer Anspruchslosigkeit konterkariert. Wo alles Spiel ist, muss nicht alles unernst sein. Darin besteht die Doppelbödigkeit von Krachts Erzählgestus, freilich ohne dass daraus ein ästhetischer Mehrwert oder ein intellektueller Gewinn zu schöpfen wäre." - Roman Bucheli, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "(T)his very amusing and bracingly oddball novel (.....) By wedding a gimlet-eyed satire of historical faddism to a highly jaunty prose style, Imperium brings to mind the early work of T. Coraghessan Boyle. That said, a lot of Engelhardt’s interactions with other humans are overly brief, more like skirmishes than relationships, which unfortunately plays up the random, "one damn thing after another" aspect of this picaresque." - Henry Alford, The New York Times Book Review

  • "All of this has a basis in history -- Google turns up some excellent photographs of Engelhardt posing before coconut palms -- but in Mr. Kracht’s deft retelling (and Daniel Bowles’s wonderfully ornate translation) the story becomes a loony allegory for Germany’s descent from grandiose idealism into stark raving lunacy." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "The fates of both the zealots and of the natives are mostly sad, occasionally tragic, but when Kracht renders them in language ranging from theological casuistry to absolute slapstick comedy one hoots one’s way through the book. Serious lessons, yes, but hilariously told. Translator Daniel Bowles has done an excellent job in conveying these qualities in his highly faithful and exacting translation: a thoroughly charming read." - Ulf Zimmermann, World Literature Today

  • "Die freakhafte Hauptfigur hat ein Gegengewicht in der Form, Kracht imitiert mit größter Lust und Präzision den allwissenden Erzähler des 19. Jahrhunderts, der sich der Parteinahme vornehm enthält, mit heiterer Souveränität Rückblenden einbaut oder einem zukünftigen Ereignis vorgreift, das Geschehen ab und an kommentiert und den Leser mit größter Selbstgefälligkeit am Interieur der Räume wie am Naturschauspiel der Ferne in verschachtelten Endlossätzen teilhaben lässt. (...) Dieser Roman ist bewusst überfrachtet mit europäischer Geistesgeschichte. (...) Christian Kracht hat mit Imperium seinen bisher besten, seinen ausgereiftesten Roman vorgelegt." - Adam Soboczynski, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

[Note: This review is based on the original German text; all translations are mine.]

       The central figure in Imperium is August Engelhardt, and the character is very closely based on the historical figure with that name. The real Engelhardt died in 1919, while Kracht extends his life by several decades, but otherwise Kracht sticks largely to the biographical facts.
       Germany was not one of the major colonial powers: late to the land-gobbling rush, it managed to only half-heartedly establish a few less significant colonies in various corners of the world. Among these was, for a few decades, the protectorate of German New Guinea -- a slice of what is now Papua New Guinea, along with a few Pacific islands. Engelhardt -- 'beard-wearer, vegetarian, nudist' -- traveled there in 1902, with 1200 books in his luggage, having decided, after some consideration, that this was the ideal place to establish a 'colony of cocovores'. He was convinced that the coconut could provide all the nutrition man needed, as well as some useful byproducts, and planned to dedicate himself to furthering the coconut-cause.
       In German New Guinea they pawned off (for far more than it was worth) the small island of Kabakon on the newcomer, and he happily settled there. The few dozen islanders who lived there were willing to work for him, and he settled in reasonably comfortably, his coconut-conviction strong enough for him to endure most of the attendant hardships.
       Making any money off the coconut-products proved more of a challenge -- even as he ventured as far as Australia to look for a market for his wares -- but word of his ambitions made it back home, and a few followers even showed up in the hopes of joining him. Few lasted very long, however -- whatever the idealistic appeal of Engelhardt's lifestyle, it wasn't for everyone. Personality clashes also didn't help: the first, very short-lived one to join the fun happily embraced the nudist lifestyle, but turned out to be both a virulent anti-Semite and very eager homosexual, neither of which Engelhardt appreciated.
       Imperium presents Engelhardt's travel-adventures and island-life casually, filling in bits of background along the way, and going off on a variety of tangents. Glimpses of Engelhardt's European experiences -- explaining also why he was so eager to find a more suitable environment -- poke gentle fun at German attitudes on matters such as nudism and vegetarianism (always popular, if also at odds with much of the mainstream), while also suggestive of other (often darker) aspects of 'national traits'. Along the way, there are brief glimpses of and nods to a variety of figures in these peripheries as well, including Kafka, Thomas Mann, and Hitler: despite most of Imperium being set abroad, it is very much a commentary on early twentieth century Germany, and German attitudes, with their well-known consequences.
       Kracht's novel is a very playful one, beginning with the tone of the omniscient narrator. There's an adventure-story feel to parts of Imperium, as in Jules Verne or Jack London (who also figures slightly in the novel's orbit), but Kracht is also very casual, focusing closely on some episodes -- such as Engelhardt being conned while on a lay-over in Ceylon -- and describing others far more summarily. Engelhardt's unusual lifestyle contrasts amusingly with that of the local Germans -- though they've seen enough that they aren't very judgmental -- and there are some very funny scenes (including Engelhardt's return to the colony after one trip, when he finds the entire capital city has been moved from one location to another -- rebuilt entirely, but not everything in exactly the same place).
       Imperium is a sly commentary on colonialism, as well as on German mores and ways, domestically and abroad. A fairly short novel, despite Engelhardt's grand ambitions -- and despite Kracht allowing his protagonist to survive another World War --, Imperium seems to dabble in too many areas, without ever settling down in the substantial. There's a lot that appeals here, a lot that's clever (and, more often, sly), but it also feels a bit too flighty.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 February 2015

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Imperium: Reviews: Christian Kracht: Other books by Christian Kracht under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swiss author Christian Kracht was born in 1966.

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© 2015-2021 the complete review

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